New approach to jailing in Nashville provides second chances, attracts national attention

The DCSO said data shows the BCC is keeping people from returning to jail, but personal stories are showing its impact.
WSMV's Tracey Kornet reports.
Published: Mar. 24, 2023 at 8:09 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - A new approach to incarceration in Davidson County is attracting attention from law enforcement nationwide.

The Behavioral Care Center (BCC), a 12,000-square-foot facility connected to the jail, is a place for inmates battling addiction or mental illness. While there, they are able to learn structure and skills and receive life-changing therapy.

“We’re trying to change the culture of what incarnation looks like,” said BCC Executive Director Eric Bauder.

Built in 2020, the side-by-side jail system is the brainchild of Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall. He and his team spent seven years studying who was coming to jail and why.

“Thirty to thirty-four percent of people booked today will be diagnosed mentally ill upon arrival,” said Hall. “There’s no mental health system in our country. In every city in this country, the largest mental health hospital is the jail.”

The DCSO said data shows the BCC is keeping people from returning to jail, but personal stories are showing its impact.

By age 28, Grace Emison had been arrested multiple times. She was last arrested in 2021 when she overdosed with her children in her car.

“I was actively addicted to heroin and opiates of every kind,” Emison said.

She faced multiple charges and was booked in the Davidson County Jail.

“None of them hit like this,” she added, “because my kids were involved.”

Emison said their smiling faces are part of what motivated real change, along with the opportunity to participate in the jail’s Behavioral Care Center program. After a mental health evaluation and meeting other criteria, Emison was accepted into the program.

“I told them look I’m bipolar, anxiety and depression, PTSD, and HDHD. I wasn’t on anything. I wasn’t seeing a doctor,” Emison said. “That was the first time that anyone in jail actually cared about me.”

The state-licensed, adult residential, trauma-informed care facility has 30 male and 30 female beds. Officers wear scrubs instead of uniforms, and inmates are called residents. Residents at the BCC are still incarcerated, but they are allowed to move freely within their designated area.

“If you don’t deal with the addiction and you’re just housing the person, you’re going to be in the same situation.”

So far, the recidivism rate shows Hall’s approach is working.

Nationally, 70% of inmates return to jail. In Tennessee, it’s 45%. But of those incarcerated at the Behavioral Care Center, just 24% return.

Grace Emison is determined to regain the trust of her family, in particular her oldest daughter.

“When I was in active addiction, I wasn’t a good mom. She had to be the mom. So now that I’m back in her life, I’m going to do my best to give her childhood back,” Emison said.

BCC Director Bauder said agencies nationwide, including Ohio and Indiana, have come to Nashville to learn how to replicate the system in their jails.