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Texas Youth Commission Settles Lawsuit with U.S. Dept. of Justice
The lawsuit brought against the TYC stemmed from a 2006 inspection of the Evins juvenile facility in Edinburg, Texas. In the DOJ’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, federal inspectors stated that TYC officials “have engaged, and continue to engage, in a pattern or practice of failing to ensure that the youth at Evins are adequately protected from harm.” The complaint further accused the TYC of “failing to provide youth ... adequate due process ... adequate rehabilitative treatment ... and engaging in a pattern or practice of depriving youth” of their constitutional rights.
DOJ officials toured the Evins unit between September 11 and 15, 2006. On March 15, 2007 they determined that conditions at Evins violated the rights of youths held at the facility. Suit was filed on February 1, 2008, though months of negotiations preceded the actual lawsuit.
Among the 40 points of the settlement, the TYC agreed to provide juveniles with “reasonably safe living conditions,” which included protecting them from violence by both guards and other prisoners.
TYC health care providers are now responsible for reporting suspicions of abuse arising from medical examinations performed on juvenile offenders.
Restraint measures can no longer be used in a punitive fashion. Use of force policies must ensure that minimal force is used in restraints; a system for reporting infractions must be implemented, and all reported incidents must be reviewed by senior management.
Excessive use of force has long been a significant problem in Texas prisons. PLN has reported how former TYC director Dimitria Pope expanded the use of chemical agents (pepper spray) against juvenile prisoners even after a court had ruled the practice illegal. [See: PLN, Feb. 2008, p.8].
Pope’s pepper spray order was issued in the guise of protecting staff from injury, and was eventually rescinded after she faced strong criticism. But it was indicative of the misguided mentality that brought the Evins facility to the attention of DOJ inspectors.
While touring Evins, inspectors noted a 2004 medical report by a nurse-manager that stated juveniles were being treated for broken teeth and fractured bones suffered at the hands of guards. Also in 2004, a violent riot between prisoners and guards resulted in several injuries; that incident is still being litigated.
Staffing levels are extremely low at the Evins facility and in TYC in general. One of the settlement provisions requires the state to rectify the staff shortage out of concern for prisoner safety.
More extensive background checks were made mandatory for newly-hired TYC employees, and an annual review must be conducted on those already employed.
Grievance policies were also an area cited for improvement, and the state is now required to maintain a compliance coordinator to ensure that the terms of the settlement agreement are met. The duration of the agreement is three years, after which time TYC is expected to be in full compliance. See: United States v. Texas, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 7:08-cv-00038. Prison and jail lawsuits filed by the DOJ tend to be the proverbial toothless with little in the way of enforcement and change.
It is worth noting that the abuses at the Evins facility were discovered and documented long before the TYC sex abuse scandal that broke in early 2007, in which West Texas State School administrator Ray Brookins and principal John Paul Hernandez were charged with molesting teenage boys in their care. Numerous TYC officials were terminated or arrested for covering up or failing to investigate those and other abuses at state juvenile facilities. [See: PLN, Feb. 2008, p.1].
Additional sources: Dallas Morning News, Associated Press
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Related legal case
United States v. Texas
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 7:08-cv-00038|