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Texas Youth Commission Wants Increased Pepper Spray Use Despite Settlement

by Michael Rigby

Less than three months after agreeing to a court settlement limiting the use of pepper spray on juveniles, the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) has failed to curb its use and is actually planning to increase the use of chemical weapons on young people in its care. The pepper spray issue is the latest disgrace facing the agency in a scandal-plagued year.

On September 13, 2007, two advocacy groups--Advocacy, Inc. and Texas Appleseed--filed suit against TYC in state court over the agency?s increasing use of pepper spray. According to the groups, pepper spray incidents increased from 196 uses in 2006 to 1,220 in just the first 11 months of 2007.

At issue in the lawsuit was a directive instituted in August 2007 by TYC Acting Executive Director Demitria Pope expanding the use of pepper spray. The advocacy groups alleged that Pope enacted the directive, which amended a previous rule that designated the use of pepper spray as a last resort, without proper authorization. The groups contended that Pope?s usurpation of the previous directive violated the state?s Administrative Procedures Act.

Fifteen days after the lawsuit was filed TYC agreed to settle the case by distributing a memo clarifying exactly when the use of pepper spray is appropriate and to provide the advocacy groups with a copy of that memo. Apparently TYC never complied with the terms of the agreement. ?We had an agreed order signed by a judge, and they have not complied with it,? said Jim George, an Austin Attorney who chairs the Appleseed Board. ?It?s unusual for people to say to a district judge, ?I will do something? and then just not do it.?

This prompted the advocacy groups to file another motion seeking to enforce the previous agreement. In that motion the groups claimed that TYC had used pepper spray in spite of the previous accord. They also alleged that Billy Humphrey, TYC?s deputy director of juvenile corrections, advised juvenile prison administrators to use pepper spray in direct violation of the September 28 agreement.

On November 28, 2007, TYC officials again agreed to a court directed compromise limiting the use of pepper spray. As part of the agreement the agency sent a memo to TYC staff, essentially making the use of chemical weapons against juvenile prisoners more of a last resort.

Unfortunately for the kids at risk, that compromise didn?t last long. The agency launched a new attempt to expand the use of pepper spray through a new rule. A public meeting on the rule was scheduled for December 3, 2007, in Austin, the state capitol.

TYC has consistently sought to increase the use of pepper spray despite findings by a number of juvenile justice experts describing pepper spray as ineffective and potentially illegal.

Jim Hurley, a TYC spokesman, said the new rule would allow TYC workers to use pepper spray before physically restraining a juvenile prisoner if they feared injury to themselves, the prisoners, or property.

?It seems incomprehensible someone would spray a 4-foot-tall 12-year-old,? said Hurley. ?Some common sense will have to be involved but that?s where training is involved.?

Unfortunately, ?common sense? doesn?t seem to be prevalent within the agency. TYC has been plagued by scandal since mid-February 2007 when the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Observer reported that agency officials ignored signs of sexual abuse of juvenile prisoners at the West Texas Sate School in Pyote. See the February, 2008, issue of PLN for full details.

Since then, TYC?s complaint hotline (1-866-477-8354) has logged more than 5,500 reports of abuse or neglect, nearly 3,000 juveniles have been relocated or released, and the agency has undergone restructuring.

The advocacy groups were represented by R. James George Jr. of the Austin law firm George & Brothers, Richard Lavallo for Advocay Incorporated, and Deborah J. Fitzgerald-Fowler for Texas Appleseed. See: M.P v. Texas Youth Commission, District Court of Travis County, Case No. D-1-GN-07-002998.

Additional Source:, AP,

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Related legal case

M.P v. Texas Youth Commission