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Rare death inside Texas juvenile lockup being investigated as a "possible suicide"

The death of a 16-year-old boy came at a facility where only three of six mental health staff positions were filled as of January.

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The death of a 16-year-old boy at a state of Texas lockup is now being investigated as a possible suicide, a Texas Juvenile Justice Department spokesman said Monday afternoon.

The boy was found unresponsive Friday night at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg. He was taken to the hospital but was unable to be revived and pronounced dead, according to a weekend news release from the department. The rare death inside a state juvenile lockup came after the agency has recently struggled to overcome sexual and physical assault scandals and staggering staff turnover rates.

“The staff at that facility are reeling from this,” said spokesman Brian Sweany, who emphasized the investigation was a “possible” suicide and that the cause of death had not yet been confirmed by the medical examiner. The department has not yet released the boy’s name.

Friday’s death was only the second death in the last five years at a state-run juvenile facility, Sweany said. The last death was the suicide of a 13-year-old boy last May at the Ron Jackson lockup in Brownwood.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, said Monday that mental health issues are impacting Texas and the nation.

“We should take a very hard look at it because that is the one common thread through all of this that seems to show up,” he said, referring to the boy’s death as well as the recent Santa Fe high school shooting that left 10 dead and injured 10 others.

Juvenile justice reform advocates have called for the closure of the state’s five lockups, which generally house larger groups of youth in rural areas throughout the state, calling the current model inhumane. The state juvenile detainee population dwindled in the last decade when judges largely began committing children to county-run facilities instead of statewide ones.

In November, an independent investigator on a routine check of the Evins lockup reported that four boys at the lockup refused to return to their dorms because they said they had to fight all the time or pay others for protection, according to agency records obtained by The Texas Tribune. The investigator also reported a boy yelling and tearing up a room, with no staff intervening until two boys began to attack a third.

The juvenile justice department made headlines in the last year after a November agency memo highlighted the recent conviction and 10-year prison sentence of one guard and the arrests of three others at another state lockup for allegedly having sex with committed youth. Soon after, two more guards at the same facility were arrested on charges of official oppression stemming from alleged physical assaults on detained youth.

Texas lawmakers came down on agency leaders, with state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who leads the chamber’s Criminal Justice Committee, calling the department “the worst-performing agency by any measure.” Afterward, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott replaced agency leadership and called for the Texas Rangers to investigate the agency.

The investigation led to the February arrest of four guards on misdemeanor charges related to allegations of excessive force used against children.

As of December, there were about 130 boys housed at the Evins lockup, according to agency records. The turnover rate for Evins correctional officers jumped from 35 percent in fiscal year 2017 to 45 percent last year. In a January report, Evins had fewer officer vacancies than the other four state youth lockups, but only three of its six mental health staff positions were filled.

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