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Surprise Inspections of Juvenile Facilities Reveal Areas for Improvement

Last month, inspectors conducted surprise safety and security reviews at the state's secure juvenile facilities. Among the findings: lax security procedures and problems with documentation.

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When inspectors paid unannounced visits to the six secure juvenile facilities statewide last month, they found gaps in important security procedures — including monitoring youths' whereabouts and keeping doors locked — that may have contributed to increasing violence among the youths and recent escapes, according to a report The Texas Tribune obtained Monday.

"It showed some strengths, but it showed some areas where we can make improvements," said Jay Kimbrough, interim executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Kimbrough sent inspectors to conduct the surprise safety and security reviews on July 24 and 25. He said he wanted to get a baseline understanding of existing operations so he could see how to improve conditions and then monitor the steps being taken to achieve those goals. A report TJJD sent to lawmakers on Monday details the inspectors’ findings.

Security at TJJD has come under heightened scrutiny after three youths escaped from the McClennan County State Juvenile Correction Facility on July 14. The escape came on the heels of months of reports of increasing youth-on-youth and youth-on-staff assaults, particularly at the state's largest youth lockup in Giddings. Lawmakers have called on the agency to quickly develop a plan to improve safety at the facilities, which house about 1,200 youths who have committed felony offenses.

Among the major concerns Kimbrough noted from the report was the staff-to-youth ratio. Currently, there are about eight to 12 youths for each staff member at the TDCJ facilities, he said. He'd like to see that improved to about six youths per staffer. In the last week, the TJJD has begun advertising for part-time staffers, he said. The agency is seeking 20 part-time workers at four of its facilities and 10 for a fifth. 

Hiring additional staff, Kimbrough said, would allow existing workers to log fewer hours on the job, which would reduce their stress and make both the staff and the youths safer.

“It’s a pretty stressful week, and working 60 hours every week for 50 weeks is pretty stressful,” he said. 

So far, the agency has received 16 applications for the 90 part-time jobs available.

Kimbrough said he would also like to see additional security cameras, lighting and fencing at the facilities, and some of those improvements are already under way.

The report detailed lax documentation procedures and implementation for many security protocols at the units.  At the facility in Corsicana, which houses youths with mental illnesses, inspectors found two state vehicles left unsecured. At the Evins unit in South Texas, inspectors found six vehicles unlocked during one shift, and at the Gainesville lockup inspectors noted nine were unlocked, including one vehicle with the windows down and the key in the ignition.

At the Giddings facility, inspectors reported that youths moved about the campus unescorted and were at times left alone to work outside. Some youths were allowed to work with cleaning chemicals and then fill out the logs used to track the chemicals.

Although the individual infractions may not seem dramatic, Kimbrough said that seemingly minor things can easily become major problems.

“Something which somebody perceives as least important might someday be the most important,” he said.

Kimbrough said surprise inspections will continue under his leadership, and he will use reports from those visits to measure improvement and to hold agency officials accountable. It’s the same process he said he used in 2007, the last time the state’s juvenile justice agency was in crisis after reports of sexual and physical abuse of the youths by staff members.

TJJD officials also provided an update on efforts to clamp down on the most violent youths in the facilities. Under the so-called Phoenix program, youths under the age of 17 who assault staff or other youths are transferred to the 24-bed Mart facility near Waco. Spokesman Jim Hurley said it’s a “no frills” environment where the youths focus on anger replacement and can earn their way back into a regular unit.

Youths older than 17 who assault another youth or staff member, he said, are charged with assault and arrested by local authorities. From May 9 through Aug. 6, 22 youths were arrested on charges of assault on a public servant, Hurley said.

Juvenile justice advocates applauded the agency’s efforts to address systemic problems that have contributed to violence and escapes. They said they were pleased that TJJD officials are doing more than simply punishing youths considered bad apples. But Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, which advocates for juvenile justice reform, said that the agency also must examine the programming it offers to rehabilitate youths. If that program is ineffective, she said, then problems will continue to plague the juvenile correctional system.

“The big, glaring problem is the failure to adequately implement rehabilitative programming for some of the kids in the juvenile system who are most desperately in need of it,” she said.

As long as those problems persist, she said, the agency may succeed in moving the violent youths temporarily, but another will simply take their place because the juveniles aren’t learning effective ways to cope or appropriate ways to behave.

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