Tajhiee Cockerham has a small frame, big brown eyes and a baby face. Clad in the standard-issue orange jumpsuit, the 18-year-old joined me in a tiny, bare room where inmates usually conference with attorneys. I wrote letters to Cockerham and the other eight teens who escaped from Woodland Hills in September and have since been placed in Nashville’s Criminal Justice Center, an adult jail. Though most of the them ignored my request, Cockerham agreed to sit down for a conversation. Jail officials gave us 20 minutes.
Last week, police captured the final escapee from the headline-grabbing episode. While on the loose, he allegedly robbed and shot a Tennessee State University student. Cockerham, meanwhile, said he too would have resorted to more crime if he weren’t caught. Framing it as a matter of survival, he says there are few other options for a kid on the lam.
“Man, it’s like, when the opportunity came, we just took it, man,” Cockerham said. “We was tired of being there. It’s not a life you just wanna be around every day,” adding that moving past the facility’s fence triggered “a big rush of relief over me, man. I was just ready to be out of there, man.”
Daily life at Woodland Hills, Cockerham says, can be chaotic and ridden with disciplinary rules that most of the kids don’t understand, and even if they do, don’t follow. Teens constantly act out during their mandatory 8 hours of class a day. The staff has little control. And an adversarial relationship exists between the guards and the kids.
“You’d think it would be more like people boxing with each other every day,” he said. “But it’s really more of a us-against-the-guards type of situation.”
In the eight months he was there, Cockerham says he witnessed several scuffles between guards and the teen inmates, not to mention constant verbal sparring.
He recalls one particular incident.
“The guard starts talking about the dude’s momma. Just talking [expletive]. Dude just trying to walk off and he was just steady coming behind him. Then the other guards that’s supposed to be the corporal, or whatever, they were supposed be telling them to calm down. They were just laughing at the situation. It’s like, you gonna like him talk to him like that?”
Since the unrest at Woodland Hills, officials at the Department of Children’s Services are continuing an internal investigation into the escape. In addition, they are exploring measures — including locking cell doors and transferring older inmates to other facilities — aimed at dialing back violence and creating an environment geared more toward therapy than punishment.
In terms of conflicts within the facility, even Cockerham says much of the onus is one the kids.
“It’s really childish play over there,” he said. “It’s like a baby day care, 18-year-olds act like they 12-year-olds over there.”
The teens at Woodland Hills have been charged with serious crimes. Being placed there requires racking up at three felonies. Cockerham has charges for marijuana possession, carrying an illegal gun and assault. He remembers his troubles with the law starting early, around 8th grade, when a petty disagreement led to a schoolyard fight, then later, an assault charge. From there, tripping up in small ways kept accumulated.
DCS has said the escape was likely coordinated. Yet Cockerham says just like flares-ups with guards, the mass escape erupted almost out of nowhere. If there was coordination, it happened shortly before the incident.
“The plan was just to come out and turn up. Just shake it. Just come out and turn up. And then one thing led to another and somebody ended up kicking out the little metal thing under the window then everybody just went from there.”
The 32 kids who made it under a weak spot in the chain-link fence ran away in small packs. Cockerham remembers his group booking it. He yelled that if they didn’t split up, they’d be caught. So Cockerham rushed on alone.
He ran for two miles and stopped at a CVS on Clarksville Pike and asked someone standing outside if he could borrow his phone.
“He was a cool guy,” Cockerham recalls. “Just telling him where we’re on the run from. He was like, ‘ya’ll need to hurry up and get up off these streets.’ He let me use his phone. I called my homie. He was there in like 15 minutes.”
His friend took him to Murfreesboro, where he was holed up in an apartment. Even there, he didn’t really weigh the consequences. In a way, he almost felt invincible.
“I thought I was going to be good in Murfreesboro … I thought I was gonna be straight out there.”
He started seeing his mugshot flashing on TV reports.
“I ain’t know they was gonna take it as that big of a deal,” he said. “I’m like ‘man, it’s a DCS facility. Why is they doing all this?’ It was on CNN and all this other stuff. I’m like ‘I ain’t think they was gonna do all this.’ It kinda made me nervous. I was like man, ‘what they gonna do when I get caught?'”
With no money and no real roadmap for the future, he admits that he was ready to commit crimes. Frankly, he’s cavalier about it what he thought it would take.
“Selling weed. Rob somebody I came across. Just get the money,” he said. “Might have to be some hot stuff. But you gotta survive, man.”
Ten days after crawling under the Woodland Hills fence, he was playing basketball at a court near the apartment complex, figuring nobody would ever notice him. Soon after, though, federal agents took him by surprise.
“I was like, ‘oh, [expletive], man,’ it just happened so fast out of nowhere. I was just playing basketball and they pulled up out of nowhere,” he said. “I couldn’t really just do nothing. Couldn’t run or nothing.”
“It was like, ‘damn, I’m caught.'”
Cockerham and eight others who are at least 18 are now serving a year in adult jail for the escape. In some ways he’s relieved to be out of Woodland Hills. With the tougher security and fewer fights, the adult jail is, in his estimation, actually a calmer place to be.
He’s been keeping up with his little sister and family in Antioch. Once out, he’s planning on landing a full-time job and letting his last brush with the law be his final one.
“I’m gonna try to get my barber’s license,” he said. “But if not, while I’m working on that, I just get me a little grocery store job, or a construction job. Something that can make me a decent amount of money.”
But once he serves his jail time, he’s out on his own.