The state senator who has long fought with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department over its repeated sexual and physical abuse scandals and chaos at state-run youth lockups has proposed funneling all the juveniles in the five youth facilities into a recently shuttered adult jail.
On Tuesday, state Sen. John Whitmire said agency and state leaders need to reconsider the existing model for detaining what he called "a very tough population," calling youth lockups an emergency that needs to be fixed. Extensive reforms sparked after 2007 reports of sexual abuse at the lockups included shifting most juveniles who commit nonviolent offenses from the state-run facilities to local probation departments, which he said left the state facilities home to mostly youths accused of violent crimes whom local communities gave up on.
“The good news is we went from 5,000 [in state lockups] down to about 854 there and about today,” Whitmire, D-Houston, said as he chaired the first Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing of the 2019 legislative session.
But in a long monologue in front of agency leadership, he said that change has meant the model of lockups — with multiple buildings spread out over hundreds of acres in rural areas — doesn’t work anymore. He then offered his solution: moving the kids into the recently closed Bartlett State Jail, about 50 miles north of Austin, that was run by the state’s adult prison system.
“You have a 1,000-bed state jail … it’s ready to go; we didn’t turn the lights off,” Whitmire told TJJD executive director Camille Cain at the hearing. “I’m gonna be honest with you: If I was in charge, we’d do it in the morning.”
Cain pushed back on Whitmire’s proposal, raising concerns about safety and staffing.
The state juvenile justice system has routinely been embroiled in scandal for more than a decade. In 2017, after another sexual abuse scandal led to the arrest of four guards, Whitmire said in a legislative hearing that the juvenile justice department was “the worst-performing agency by any measure.”
Since that hearing, the juvenile justice department underwent a massive leadership shakeup but also faced more officer arrests on physical abuse charges, as well as high rates of turnover for guards and detainee suicides, including that of a 13-year-old boy. The latest troubles facing the agency are reports of prolonged violence and gang tensions inside lockups in Gainesville and Edinburg detailed by the Houston Chronicle.
Regular site visit reports from an independent oversight agency for TJJD revealed that over the last several months in the facilities, teens were ordering assaults on guards, engaging in gang- and race-related fights that led to shutting down dorms in Edinburg, and a six-day disturbance in Gainesville, according to the Chronicle.
Whitmire argued the recent reports showed the lockups would never keep staff and youth safe. He emphasized the smaller number of kids who remain housed in them are too “violent and tough” for local probation departments to handle.
Although advocates have also called for closure of the state youth lockups, they have pushed for housing detainees in smaller settings closer to home. Whitmire’s suggestion seems to move in the opposite direction, keeping them all in one large facility. Lindsey Linder, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said after the hearing that the proposal was concerning.
“It's alarming to hear some of the members of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice put the majority of the blame for these issues on the youth,” she said in an email to The Texas Tribune. “Moving the youth in Gainesville into what is essentially an adult prison where they will be treated even more-so like adults is very alarming."
She said the issues in the department are a cumulative effect of chronic understaffing. The Gainesville lockup had a turnover rate of 79 percent for guards last year.
In a statement after the hearing, Cain said she was looking forward to continuing to work with lawmakers and explain her vision for TJJD; she is also expected to lay out her more detailed plan for the agency during a Friday board meeting.
“TJJD remains committed to lowering our population through alternative placements, working closely with the local probation departments, and increasing treatment options for youth involved in the juvenile justice system,” she said in the statement.
In the hearing, she also said that she was worried about being unable to move a youth who presented problems in one setting and filling a large roster of employees needed to handle the about 850 detainees at a new location.
Whitmire argued that safety is already endangered at the “out-of-control” lockups. After the hearing, he told the Tribune he acknowledged the fear many have of placing youth in adult jails. He said Bartlett would be reprogrammed as a state school and that youth would be able to get the programming they need.
As far as what would happen to the juvenile justice department facilities, which employ local residents in rural parts of the state, Whitmire proposed what he considered to be an answer to another problem facing the state: give the facilities to the state’s adult prison system to house geriatric prisoners in air conditioning.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has faced renewed controversy over its uncooled prisons in recent years. A recent lawsuit, which was settled with a big legal bill and an agreement to air-condition one prison that houses older inmates, noted nearly two dozen inmate deaths from heatstroke in the last two decades.
This year, two Democrats have proposed long-shot legislation to keep all state-run prisons under 85 degrees. And after another inmate’s death was reported as hyperthermia (TDCJ has contested that report and claims the autopsy is still pending), the House Appropriations Committee accepted a budget amendment to require the department to record temperatures of cells on hot days.