Powerful ringleaders at the state's largest youth lockup have established a hierarchy in which the weakest offenders are "bought and owned" with drugs, cigarettes and money, according to a report signed Friday by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s independent ombudsman that raised serious concerns about security at the Giddings State School.
“The control these youth have gained has spread across this campus, even though they are not huge in number, they are controlling the culture on this campus,” the ombudsman reported.
Three ombudsman staff conducted a special monitoring visit at the Giddings facility March 29. With more than 260 youths, the lockup is the largest of the six remaining facilities after lawmakers closed several in an overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system in 2007, and it is home to the youth capital offender program. Among other concerns the investigators reported were a lack of staff control over the youths, unprofessional staff behavior, youths extorting food from one another and bullying victims referring themselves to isolation for their own safety.
“It really for me highlights the continuing need to shrink our ongoing use and reliance on these facilities that have never been able to be good places for youth to be rehabilitated,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that advocates for juvenile justice reforms.
Responding to the ombudsman's concerns in the report, TJJD officials said they were taking immediate action to address many of the problems identified. And on a return visit to Giddings this week, the ombudsman’s office staff noted some improvement.
“This is certainly something we take very seriously,” said TJJD spokesman Jim Hurley. “We are looking very hard into it.”
The ombudsman’s report comes amid an ongoing investigation of youth-on-youth violence at TJJD facilities following a Texas Tribune report on data that showed a dramatic increase in the rate of youth attacks on one another that resulted in disciplinary action from 2007 to 2011. 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.
It also comes on the heels of a survey of more than 100 youths at the Giddings facility released last month by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in which the youths reported that their most important concern was attacks from their peers. About 85 percent of the youths surveyed said they had been in a physical fight during their stay. And 70 percent said that gangs had either a lot or a "huge amount of power" at the lockup.
During the March 29 visit, the investigators noted that staff allowed youths to engage in disruptive horseplay as they moved about the campus grounds without correcting behavior that could escalate. They also reported a lack of supervision when youths moved across campus.
The investigators described a “hierarchy of leadership in the dorms where youths are bought and owned by other youth.” Cigarettes, drugs and money are used to make the purchases. Vulnerable youths can earn their way into protected groups by carrying out orders from the ringleaders, getting them food and snacks, beating up youths that don’t surrender their food and attacking staff members who don’t respect the youth leaders.
The leaders of the internal gangs have been reported to the facility staff, according to the report, but those youths remain in the dorms where they wield power.
"The youth that report feeling safe on this campus will tell you it is because they belong to the right gang and/or know how to fight," the ombudsman reported.
Additionally, investigators reported that a large number of youths had asked to be kept in isolation because they feared being assaulted, harassed and having food stolen from them in their dorms. Many have spent weeks in isolation units where they don’t have access to the programs and rehabilitation treatment they need to make the progress required to be released from the lockup. It’s an issue the investigators said had been reported before to the TJJD administration but remains problematic.
“It is concerning that the progress of the victimized youth is hindered when they take appropriate action to protect their safety,” according to the report.
In response to the ombudsman’s report, TJJD staff they are trying to identify “negative leaders and reduce their influence” at the facility. After the March 29 visit, they reported that they identified five alleged ringleaders, including one who was caught on camera extorting food from another youth. And they said that contraband control efforts were increased with more random drug tests and dorm searches.
But the TJJD staff also said while they were aware of bullying at the facility they were unable to corroborate the investigators’ reports of “buying and owning” among the youths. “As a result, we are cautious about concluding that it is an established practice on the Giddings campus while we remain watchful for additional information,” the agency wrote in its response.
TJJD staff disputed the notion that a large number of youth refuse to leave secure isolation. During March, they said, an average of four youths — out of the 288 at the campus — refused to leave isolation. Still, they acknowledged problems in the delivery of treatment to youths in security at Giddings.
“The delivery of effective treatment services in the Security Unit has been inconsistent at the Giddings facility, and numerous changes are underway,” agency staff wrote.
Hurley said staff at the facility is undergoing intensified training and experienced staff from other facilities have been assigned as mentors at Giddings.
"We are making changes," he said. "We are confident this progress is going to continue."