Agency Will Investigate Violence in Texas Youth Prisons

A cell at the Giddings State School, a juvenile correctional facility.
A cell at the Giddings State School, a juvenile correctional facility.

The independent ombudsman of the state's juvenile justice system will investigate reports of increased violence among youths in the state's secure facilities following an in-depth review by The Texas Tribune of youth-on-youth assaults over the last 10 years.

The Tribune reported this month that the rate of reports of youth-on-youth assaults requiring additional action by staff more than tripled from 2007 to 2011, according to data obtained from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department under the Texas Public Information Act. Although the total rate of all assaults reported at the state's six secure facilities dropped during that time period, the rate of assaults that required additional disciplinary action grew to 54 assaults per 100 youths in 2011 from 17 assaults per 100 youths in 2007.

Following the Tribune report, Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, an organization that advocates for juvenile justice reform, along with other advocacy groups, wrote to Debbie Unruh, the independent ombudsman of the juvenile justice department, asking for an investigation of the reported increase in assaults among youths and assaults by youths on staff members.

"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.

In 2007, following reports that staff at what was then the Texas Youth Commission had sexually and physically abused youths in their custody, legislators overhauled the juvenile justice system, aiming to improve conditions. They gave counties incentives to keep low-level offenders in their communities, where they could be close to treatment services and support systems. Only felony offenders who had failed at other programs would serve sentences at secure state facilities. Lawmakers also prohibited the incarceration of anyone older than 18 at the facilities.

The average daily population at the secure facilities dropped to about 1,200 in 2011 from nearly 3,000 in 2007. And attacks on youths by staff members dropped precipitously.

Experts and advocates, though, said the reduced population was made up of youths who were more aggressive and harder to treat. And because a number of the facilities closed as the population dropped and the state budget shrank, those hard-to-handle youths were being housed closer together.

And the data from the juvenile justice department contained 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.  

A spokesman for the juvenile justice department declined to comment Monday. But Juvenile Justice Department director Cherie Townsend has said she believes the facilities are safer now, while acknowledging there are 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. 

Unruh, the ombudsman, said in a letter responding to Appleseed's investigation request that she took the request seriously and that she would conduct a thorough study and produce a report with her findings within six months. 

Josh Haven, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the ombudsman informed the governor of her plans to investigate concerns about the juvenile justice facilities.

Fowler said she hoped conditions would improve at the facilities even before the investigation is complete.

"I think the fact that someone is taking these issues seriously will hopefully have an immediate impact," she said. "And we may see the agency become more proactive in dealing with the problem."

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