Advocate: Abolishing TYC Could Be Best Fix

One kid's jaw was wired shut after a fellow inmate attacked him in his room. A young man wore a cast on his arm after a fight during orientation. Youths reported riots and rampant theft and said staff members choked, kicked and hit them.

Conditions remain unsafe and unhealthy in Texas Youth Commission facilities, according to four advocacy groups that are urging the U.S. Department of Justice to launch yet another investigation of the scandal-plagued agency. “What we’re seeing may be a result of facilities where the culture is so entrenched it’s just really going to be difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate the problem,” says Deborah Fowler, the legal director of Texas Appleseed, a public interest law center.

Just three years after lawmakers adopted a slew of reforms following allegations of horrendous physical and sexual abuse at TYC and a subsequent federal investigation, Texas Appleseed and three other nonprofits — Advocacy Inc., the Center for Public Representation and the National Center for Youth Law — on Tuesday sent a letter to the DOJ that outlined frightening reports of violence against youth offenders, along with poor living conditions and subpar education and mental health care. The groups conducted inmate interviews in recent months and analyzed data obtained through open records requests from TYC. “Our recent visits to facilities indicate broader systemic problems that TYC leadership has not resolved. These problems are not isolated to specific sites, but exist throughout TYC’s system of 10 lockdown facilities,” the groups wrote.

In the short term, Fowler says, the DOJ could help TYC officials ensure the safety of young inmates. In the long term, though, she says real change may require lawmakers to consider abolishing the troubled agency altogether.

TYC officials counter that the advocates' letter does not accurately reflect current conditions in the facilities. "The agency has made tremendous gains since 2007," says TYC spokesman Jim Hurley. "We have more violent offenders with higher needs, and we are providing education, specialized treatment, a whole host of services in a very effective way, and we think we’re doing good work."

 

In 2007, investigative reporters at the Texas Observer and The Dallas Morning News uncovered widespread sexual and physical abuse at TYC lockups in Pyote and Edinburg. The scandals rocked the juvenile justice system, and lawmakers adopted a variety of reform measures designed to reduce the population in youth prisons and to improve treatment for young felons who were yet to be incarcerated. Since then, the number of youths confined to TYC facilities has dropped from about 5,000 to fewer than 2,000, and two of the lockups have been closed. A new director, Cherie Townsend, took charge of TYC in 2008, with the goal of turning around the problem-racked agency. Despite all the changes, advocates say dangerous conditions persist and are exacerbated by inadequate staffing. “The more progressive, reform-minded attitudes of the TYC leadership in its Central Office do not appear to be filtering down to the local facility level, even after three years of ‘reform,’” the advocates wrote.

Safety concerns, particularly at lockups in Corsicana and Beaumont, were the most urgent problems advocates identified. Every single youth interviewed at the Al Price Unit in Beaumont reported feeling unsafe, Fowler says. “They described riots and frequent fights. The first youth we talked to had a broken jaw,” she says. Staff members at the unit were so concerned that the young man would get reinjured, she says, that they placed him in secure confinement. “This kid just sat in security for over a month because they were so afraid to put him with the other kids,” she says.

Youths in Corsicana — a facility designed for youths with mental health problems — told lawyers that they feared the staff, who “smacked,” “dragged,” “kicked” and “slapped” them. A young man with his arm in a cast said it was broken during a fight with another youth. Inmates reported that sexual assaults occurred often. Adding to the report, the advocates said that several youths engaged in serious and dangerous self-cutting that seemed be an “established part of the culture of that facility.”

“The problem we uncovered is an indicator of the need for strong community-based supports and services that will keep kids … closer to home, where the specialized care they need is available,” Fowler says. While advocates are hopeful that quick DOJ intervention will curb the violence at state lockups, Fowler says other systemic problems they uncovered could require legislative intervention and perhaps more drastic measures.

The violence, advocates say, is exacerbated by woefully inadequate mental health care and education programming at the facilities, where youths are left without needed treatment and idle for hours every day. Nearly half of the youths in TYC facilities need some form of mental health treatment, according to the advocacy groups, but professional help is in severely short supply. In March 2010, the agency reported just 24 full-time associate psychologists, seven full-time psychologists and four full-time social workers to deal with all 1,700 TYC inmates. Even in Corsicana, a facility specifically intended to house up to 145 mentally ill youths, there are just four staff psychologists, one psychologist intern and a part-time psychiatrist — and no social worker. The only mental health treatment some youths receive comes from a doctor they talk to via televideo. And some youths reported seeing a variety of doctors who prescribed conflicting psychotropic drugs.

The advocacy groups also found “extreme shortfalls” in educational programming, a key factor in helping troubled youths succeed after they leave lockup. Though the median age of TYC inmates was 16 in 2009, the median reading level was sixth grade, the advocates reported — and yet only about one-third of the students were identified for special education. Teachers are in short supply, they said, and many call in sick for several days in a row, which means that school days are regularly canceled or shortened.

In a written response to the advocates’ letter, TYC officials say they take the concerns seriously and will investigate the allegations. But they say that TYC has seen a 61-percent decrease in youth assaults involving bodily injuries during the past year, and that TYC enforces a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to mistreatment or abuse. And the agency reports that education efforts have improved over the last year, with school hours increased to 420 minutes each day and the introduction of full academic course offerings that allow inmates to earn a high school diploma. Mental health care has improved, too, they say. “We know we have room to improve and we’re going to improve, absolutely," Hurley says.

But as the reports of problems persist after three years of reform efforts, some question whether the TYC can be salvaged in its current form. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, says keeping young offenders in their home communities has proven more successful than any other approach. Most offenders are from urban areas where there are greater professional services available than in small, rural towns that are home to TYC lockups. “They just can’t get a staff … that is competent to provide safety for the children,” Whitmire says of TYC. If he had his druthers, Whitmire says, he would consolidate and shrink TYC facilities and instead put more money into community-based plans that keep youths closer to home. “It’s just dilapidated,” he says. “They need professional help, and [it's] just not in these facilities.”

When Whitmire first brought up the idea of abolishing or downsizing TYC, Fowler was opposed. She was hopeful two years ago that Townsend, TYC's new executive director, who had three decades in juvenile justice and a track record of successful programs in other states, could save the agency. But after touring the facilities in recent months and talking to inmates, she changed her mind. “I’m certainly open to ideas and thoughts about how to reform TYC short of abolishing it,” Fowler says, “but my primary concern right now is making sure kids in TYC facilities are safe.”

 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.