More than 100 youths surveyed at one of the state's largest juvenile correctional facilities said their most important concern is attacks from their peers, according to a report released today by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
"They had a lot of concerns about staff being really negative to them, and they had a lot of concerns about youth-on-youth violence," said Benet Magnuson, juvenile justice analyst at the coalition, which advocates for incarcerated youths.
Magnuson and a team of interviewers surveyed 115 youths at the Giddings State School in January and asked them about living conditions, services and treatment at the facility, which housed about 270 youths on average in 2011. The majority of youths reported that they felt safe and were hopeful about their future. But they also noted negative interactions with staff and worries about fights with other youths.
Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said the results of the survey were largely positive. And he said the recommendations for improvement in the report aligned with goals the agency had already established to provide additional training for staff as part of a strategic plan.
"This report contains a broad range of recommendations which really have value not just at Giddings but throughout the system," Hurley said.
The juvenile justice system in Texas is in the midst of reform and transition. In 2007, lawmakers overhauled the system after horrendous sexual and physical assault scandals. Policies were changed to keep more juveniles closer to their homes and to ensure that only felony offenders younger than 18 were sent to the lockups. Several facilities were shuttered, and the population of youth offenders in state custody plummeted. Then, last year, hoping to save money and align services, the Texas Legislature decided to merge the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission into one new agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
In the survey, 89 percent of the youths said they felt OK, kind of safe or very safe at the Giddings facility. Only 2 percent reported feeling very unsafe.
But the youths also reported a significant amount of fighting and gang-related activity at the facility. About 85 percent of the youths said they had been in a physical fight during their stay. And 70 percent said that gangs had either a lot of power or a huge amount of power at Giddings.
"There’s too much fighting on this campus. Fights, riots, gangs – trying to see who’s tougher. It makes me feel less safe," one youth wrote in a survey response.
The youths' responses to those questions may have reflected lingering effects of an incident in January in which about 50 youths ran out of their classrooms on the campus in Giddings and another half-dozen smashed in windows and broke down a door. Most of the youths surveyed said that event was either gang- or race-related, and the line between those distinctions is blurry, Magnuson said.
"Each one said that the staff didn’t know how to intervene. They didn’t know how to make things better," he said. "There’s a very clear need for staff training at the facility on how to build positive relationships with kids."
The youths also said they felt the long distance of the facility from their homes made it difficult for them to interact with family members. Only 15 percent of the youths said they saw their family members at least once a week while at Giddings.
They also reported a need for additional mentoring, and they said would like to have more positive interactions with staff.
The biggest takeaways from the survey, Magnuson said, are that the state should continue implementing policies that keep youths closer to their homes, where they are nearer to family members and mentors who can help with their rehabilitation, and that agency staff members need additional training to deal with youths in positively and effectively.
"Giddings is very much a facility in transition right now," he said, "and where it ends up in a few months could be very different from where it is now."