Investigation Sought Into Violence at Youth Prisons

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An empty cell at a state a juvenile correctional facility.
An empty cell at a state a juvenile correctional facility.

Organizations that advocate for juvenile justice reforms are calling for an independent investigation of violence at Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities on the heels of a Texas Tribune report that the rate of confirmed youth-on-youth assaults there has tripled since 2007.

In a letter to Debbie Unruh, the ombudsman of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, Texas Appleseed and other groups said the statistics reported in the Tribune confirm anecdotal reports they have received in recent years from youths they work with at the state's six secure facilities. They submitted a formal complaint and asked Unruh to launch an investigation into systemic problems at the agency.

"Ultimately, it is very difficult for us to imagine that the children in the care of the state secure facilities could make much progress toward rehabilitation if they are not in an environment in which they are safe," the advocates wrote.

The Tribune reviewed 10 years’ worth of data on the number of physical and sexual assaults and pepper-spray incidents at youth correctional facilities across Texas. Overall, the rate of confirmed youth-on-youth assaults more than tripled at the secure juvenile offender facilities statewide since 2007, when lawmakers approved a major overhaul of the juvenile justice system following reports of horrific staff abuse against youths. The data showed that attacks on staff members also increased.

The data did show progress for the reform efforts, including reductions in violence perpetrated by staff and in all types of sexual assaults. And department spokesman Jim Hurley argued that the entire number of alleged assaults at the facilities has declined and that the rate of confirmed assaults has primarily increased because staff members are now investigating more of the assaults and holding youths accountable. Hurley wouldn't comment on the advocates' request for an investigation.

Elsewhere in the data from the juvenile justice department were additional findings that concerned advocates, including a dramatic rise in the use of pepper spray at the Giddings State School and a large number of youths in 2011 who asked to be isolated because they feared for their own safety. Nearly 400 youths made those requests during a year when the average daily population at the secure facilities was about 1,200.  

Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, said the numbers align with reports from parents and youths of increasingly aggressive behavior at the facilities. In August 2010, Texas Appleseed asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate conditions at the facilities after interviews they conducted showed a pattern of youth-on-youth assaults, improper restraints and youths fearing for their safety.

In a November 2010 report on the progress of reforms at TYC, consultants who interviewed staff and youths reported concerns about gang-related activity. Some youths said they felt unsafe because they or someone else they knew had been followed into their room when staff wasn't watching and then beaten up.

"There needs to be a real serious look not only at problem, but how to solve the problem," Fowler said. "The truth is it's counterproductive not just for the kids who are being victimized but also for the youths who are allowed to engage in that assaultive behavior in first place."

Juvenile Justice Department director Cherie Townsend has said she believes the facilities are safer now but acknowledged there are some improvements needed. The agency has hired additional staff and has developed a plan to reduce pepper-spray use at Giddings. James Smith, the department's operations director, has said the agency is also working to introduce aggression replacement techniques. It is planning to create rooms with beanbag chairs and Nerf balls, where the youths can vent their anger without harming others.

Unruh said she planned to meet with stakeholders and review the information before deciding on the appropriate approach to addressing any problems at the facilities.  

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