Despite Reforms, Juvenile Offenders in Texas Remain Endangered
by Matt Clarke
Two studies by the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin found that juveniles held in Texas jails while awaiting trial as adults are often isolated with no access to education programs, and that violence remains prevalent in state juvenile facilities in spite of recent reforms.
Texas’ juvenile system, which has been renamed the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), was rocked by months of violence during 2012 in the agency’s six secure facilities – especially the Giddings State School and Corsicana Residential Treatment Center. The spike in violence echoed widespread reports of abuse and misconduct in 2007 that resulted in substantial changes in the state’s juvenile justice system.
For the first study by the LBJ School of Public Affairs (LBJ), 41 jails were asked to complete a survey related to incarcerated juveniles, their access to programs and whether they were separated from adult prisoners. The results indicated there were few prisoners under the age of 17 held in Texas jails – only 34 during the survey months of October and November 2011. The survey also showed that in 30 of the jails – roughly three-fourths – adults and juveniles were incarcerated separately. However, the report noted that juveniles might come into contact with adult prisoners during showers, recreation or meals.
“National research indicates that juveniles in adult facilities are five times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and rape than youths who are kept in the juvenile system,” according to the report.
On May 7, 2012, two days before the LBJ report was released, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a ruling requiring jails to separate adult and juvenile prisoners.
However, even with separation there are problems. Most of the juveniles housed separately from adults are kept in long-term isolation, which may result in mental health issues and limits their access to education programs. The report noted that the lack of educational opportunities might also violate state and federal law.
“It amounts to solitary confinement for kids for anywhere from six months to a year while they await trial,” said Professor Michele Deitch, the study’s lead author and an expert on jail conditions. “We’re sending them back out onto the streets having deteriorated mentally” and having fallen far behind in their studies, she added.
With that in mind, Travis County Judge Jeanne Meurer has made use of a 2011 law that allows judges to order a juvenile defendant charged as an adult to be sent to a juvenile detention facility to await trial.
“My philosophy is to the extent possible kids should remain in juvenile facilities,” said Meurer. However, she acknowledged that was “not always possible” because counties need discretion when dealing with juvenile offenders who are extremely violent.
Once convicted, Texas juveniles not certified as adults are sent to the TJJD, but their treatment at state juvenile facilities has not been much better than that experienced by youths held in adult jails.
LBJ convened a second study in 2012 after the TJJD was rocked by high levels of violence. The crisis was so great that, in May 2012, Texas Governor Rick Perry temporarily reassigned his fix-it man, Jay Kimbrough, to the TJJD from his post as the state’s Assistant Director for Homeland Security.
Kimbrough was no stranger to the TJJD; he had been appointed as a special master and later conservator of what was previously known as the Texas Youth Commission following a sex abuse, physical abuse and cover-up scandal in 2007. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.28; May 2009, p.24; Feb. 2008, p.1].
His task at the TJJD was to quell the escalating violence, extortion and gang activity among juvenile offenders, particularly at the Giddings State School. Remedial measures included hiring more staff, providing incentives for good behavior and requiring employees at Giddings to wear uniforms to create a more professional environment. Kimbrough also was involved in implementing the Phoenix Program, which provides intensive counseling in a secure setting for juveniles who commit violent offenses against staff and other youths.
Professor Deitch said the second LBJ study was initiated following a request by the TJJD’s Office of Independent Ombudsman “in the wake of numerous accounts of increasing youth violence in the state-run secure juvenile facilities during 2012.” The report, titled “Understanding and Addressing Youth Violence in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department,” was released in May 2013.
Deitch said the study recognized that reforms within the TJJD were underway, but noted “there are several findings in the report that raise particular concerns.” The report’s key finding was that violence and disruptive behavior by juvenile offenders continued to increase through the end of 2012, as did non-violent major rule violations. “TJJD appears to have a problem with managing youth behavior generally, not just a problem with violence,” Deitch wrote.
The second LBJ report also faulted the TJJD for treating youth violence as a short-term problem rather than developing “comprehensive and proactive approaches to behavior management” to deal with the violence as a “long-term chronic issue.” Further, the report found that behavior problems differed at TJJD facilities. The finding suggested “a lack of consistency in the way programs and procedures are implemented across the agency.”
According to the study, violence and behavior problems were the worst at the Corsicana facility, which houses mentally ill juveniles. “The Corsicana Residential Treatment Center for youth with serious mental illness has, by far, the highest levels of violent and disruptive behavior in [the TJJD],” the report said. “This calls into question not only the safety of youth in the facility but also the effectiveness of the programming taking place there and the appropriateness of this setting for a treatment purpose.”
A report released by the TJJD in June 2013 recommended closing Corsicana because the facility “continues to pose a risk to the vulnerable youth population it serves as hazardous debris and glass are continually unearthed after rain or strong winds.” The roughly 90 youths at the facility were using the glass and debris to harm themselves, the report stated.
Corsicana was responsible for 32% of all violent incidents in the TJJD in 2012, even though it held only 10% of the agency’s secure facility population. The juveniles housed at Corsicana were removed in December 2013 at the direction of the Texas legislature.
The second LBJ study also suggested that TJJD staff had contributed to misconduct by juveniles due to the overuse of security units (i.e., segregation) as a tool to manage bad behavior. “The data suggest that the placement of youth in these punitive settings may in fact be contributing to misbehavior rather than deterring it,” the report said, citing a “stunningly high number” of placements in security units. In fact, during some weeks of the study, there were “more referrals to the security units than ... youth in the facilities.”
The LBJ report was not entirely negative. Researchers found that juveniles in secure TJJD facilities reported feeling safe despite the violence and misbehavior. “Most incidents do not result in serious bodily injury and do not involve weapons,” the study noted, “and of particular importance given the agency’s history, youth do not report sexual assault to be a significant problem.”
Professor Deitch said researchers at LBJ hope the information in their report “can help guide some of TJJD’s continuing reform efforts,” because the conclusions provide “a number of recommendations directed to TJJD administrators and legislators.”
She added, “Drawing on the advice of top experts from around the country, we recommend the development of a multi-tiered behavior management plan that incorporates preventive elements, intervention strategies, and a graduated system of discipline that includes both intensified interventions and immediate consequences.”
In another report issued by TJJD Independent Ombudsman Debbie Unruh in October 2013, violence was also found to be an issue at the agency’s McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility – specifically, staff-on-juvenile assaults. The report detailed at least three incidents when guards in the Phoenix Program at McLennan fought with juveniles, including throwing them to the ground, holding them down and punching them in the ribs.
Some of the incidents were caught on security cameras, but in one case, the report said, a guard told a juvenile to cover the security camera before they began fighting. Several youths told investigators that the fighting was nothing more than “horseplay.”
“The youth stated that the practice was for the staff and youth to trade punches in the ribs until one or the other gave up,” the report stated. “Some youth claimed they did not want to participate but felt they would be made fun of if they refused.”
TJJD spokesman Jim Hurley said such incidents constituted “totally unacceptable behavior.... There’s no such thing as horseplay at TJJD.”
Three guards were fired and four were disciplined in response to an investigation by the TJJD’s Office of the Inspector General into fights involving staff at the McLennan facility.
Sources: Texas Tribune, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Observer, www.texascjc.org, www.publicintegrity.org, www.gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com
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