* * *
It’s still a little mysterious to me why TYC granted the request of a lawyer from the ACLU Women’s Rights Project for access to its facilities to investigate the conditions in which girls are confined, but whatever the reason they did.
For two weeks I drove through central Texas in a rented Kia to the six facilities where girls are held: Brownwood, Willoughby, Corsicana, Marlin, WINGS, and Victoria. I interviewed as many girls as I could in that time, observed daily life, and spoke with TYC workers and administrators, some of whom I approached and some of whom approached me. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their thoughts. (I can always be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org by anyone with opinions about what’s happening in TYC, what should be happening, or how to make it happen.)
I’ve visited juvenile facilities in a few different states, and what struck me about TYC’s state schools is how much they look and feel like junior prisons designed to produce junior prisoners. That goes against TYC’s legal duty to prepare delinquent kids for “reestablishment in society,” and anyone knowledgeable in juvenile justice will tell you that the adult corrections model doesn’t work for kids. Huge facilities, prison rules, and the 16-hour schedule also cause other problems, like pitting kids and staff against each other by keeping everyone worn down and on edge.
Good things do happen within TYC but often not so much by institutional design as by individual acts of compassion. For example, almost every girl I interviewed described childhoods full of exploitation and violence, but the girls hadn’t received individual counseling from TYC to address it. (I don’t doubt that it’s the same for boys, as some of you point out.)
One girl surprised me. She had the standard background: She’d been raped repeatedly by her father over about five years, she’d abused drugs from a very young age, she had a child, whom she neglected, by a much older man, and she was destructive:
I tried a lot of suicide, like I would carve on myself. Or like one time I rammed my head into a brick wall and I knocked myself out . . . I wasn’t thinking, I didn’t care. I’d always leave my child with my sister or my other sister and my mom. I’d just go out and drink and didn’t care. I wasn’t taking responsibilities for nothing, I was just throwing it to the side.
The surprise came when I asked the girl whether anyone at TYC had talked with her about the abuse. She said something very different from the other girls:
I had a wonderful caseworker. Like, I never opened up so much [before].…I would always talk to him. I’d be in his office every day. And then I started, like, I’ve been doing it on my own now. It went down from every day to once a week or so.
It felt good to finally talk.…It started helping me ‘cuz I started realizing everything. That I shouldn’t just dwell on what my father did to me…I just found, like, I opened my eyes I guess, started realizing.
I just know that I feel like I’m different. Like, how do you say it? Like I feel like I can do stuff on my own and I know what I’m doing, like I’m ready or something. I just want what’s best for me and my child.
If Texas wants reformed kids, better recidivism numbers, and fewer assaults on staff and fights between kids, TYC has to change profoundly enough so that every kid comes out saying what this girl did. TYC’s kids need a lot of things, including healthy food, decent medical care, independent living skills, and much more, but somewhere at the heart of things there has to be a chance for kids to build healthy relationships with adults they can trust.
I know there’s been a lot of talk about the “Missouri Model,” but I was surprised that no one I met in the TYC leadership had bothered to go see how Missouri’s facilities actually work. I visited several of them last year and I found that, although kids from the streets of East St. Louis are just as tough as kids from Harris County, the Missouri facilities are another world. Everyone’s pretty relaxed. Everyone, from teachers to unit staff to cafeteria workers, is required to have positive interaction with the kids every day, and they do. The kids carry around little books called “Passports to the Community” marking their progress through the program, and including things like mandatory family counseling meetings and home visits. Workers don’t have to debate the relative merits of pepper spraying or tackling out-of-control kids because kids and staff are usually nice to each other. When higher-level administrators come by for visits, which they do often, they know staff and kids by name. In 2005, Missouri’s recidivism rate was 7.1%.
I see very little in the reform legislation or the administrative shuffling that will get TYC from here to there. But what Missouri offers is proof that it can happen, and a model for how to do it. For TYC workers, any progress toward that model means a safer, less stressful work environment and a better chance to make a difference in kids’ lives. It’s possible but it will take a lot of heavy lifting by everyone involved in TYC, from the leadership to the workers to the kids and their families. For our part, we’ll help however we can.