On Wednesday, a joint House-Senate committee of the Texas Legislature will meet to re-evaluate changes at TYC. By most accounts, those changes have done little to respond to the long-term problems that led to the sexual abuse scandal which ignited recent events. In fact, the official response to problems clearly caused by prison-like features has been to move even further in the direction of making TYC more like TDCJ – precisely the opposite of what’s needed, in light of TYC’s history.
The state of Texas has forgotten the lessons of the past when it comes to large, maximum-security facilities for juvenile offenders. Let’s take one case in point: The Mountain View School for Boys, built in 1962 amid a furor over violent juveniles that would seem familiar to readers who lived through the 1990s. This was the facility reserved for older, “violent and serious” offenders who existed, in TYC director James Turman’s words, “in the twilight zone between adolescence and adulthood.” Here is a photograph of Mountain View’s exterior from the archives of the Texas State Library:
When the Morales case began in 1971, by far the worst abuses surfaced at Mountain View. FBI agents, acting under orders from the Department of Justice, which had signed on as a plaintiff in the case, discovered that guards had been spraying inmates at close range with Mace, a chemical spray that began being manufactured in the 1960s. At least one boy, nicknamed “Tweetybird” by the guards (who routinely “diagnosed” inmates as homosexual) was sprayed so many times that huge patches of his skin peeled off.
One of the most damning indictments of Mountain View appeared in an expert report, given to the court in 1972 by Howard Ohmart, a consultant with the American Justice Institute who had evaluated over twenty prisons, including Angola State Prison in Louisiana. Ohmart described Mountain View overall as “punitive, regimented, and oppressive.” Guards wore “police-type uniforms” that, in Ohmart’s estimation, discouraged the ability of staff to function as “substitute parents,” as TYC claimed they did. Epitomizing Mountain View’s worst qualities was its “Security Treatment Center,” reserved for rulebreakers. Here boys lived in isolation cells and worked on a “punitive work squad.” Quoting Ohmart:
“As we approached the work squad the nine coverall-clad figures (with the ‘security’ emblem emblazoned on the back) were seated on the ground taking the carefully timed ‘break.’ Elbows on knees, head between hands, they sat staring at the ground, forbidden to either talk or look at each other. Shortly after our arrival, one of the two supervising officers gave the work signal and without a word the group arose, still in line and started swinging their heavy hoes. The hoe comes high overhead and chops into the earth, in a pointless and completely unproductive exercise. Three or four swings and the line moves forward in unison, wordless, and with faces in a fixed, blank expressionless mask…”
Ohmart then observed the boys eating lunch, in total silence, heads bowed down, on the floor of their isolation cells. Ultimately, he concluded, “we have never seen anything quite as depressing, or anything that seemed so deliberately designed to humiliate, to degrade and debase. It is surely oppression in its simplest and most direct form.”
Two copies of this report are in the Texas State Library, one of which belonged to TYC director James Turman. His copy is covered in angry margin notes that argue with nearly every statement in this sixty-page report. Next to the paragraph quoted above, Turman wrote “This is called discipline.” Next to Ohmart’s criticism of the staff uniforms, Turman wrote “The students in our schools have learned that clothes do not make a man.” In many places he retorted “stupid” or “false.”
Judge William Wayne Justice disagreed with Turman, and ordered that Mountain View be closed down immediately. He concurred with Ohmart’s belief that “the oppressive character of the place” was by design “when the program was created over a decade ago and has been carefully nurtured ever since by its designer.” The consensus view then was that large institutions inherently bred abuses, that even good people could overlook, enable, or rationalize practices that would be deemed unacceptable elsewhere. While some TYC staff blew the whistle and testified against the administration in Morales, many others seemed to be either unaware or unconcerned about abuses.
In the 1990s, motivated by a new rash of violent juvenile offenders, the state forgot the lessons of Mountain View and rushed to build more institutions. This in turn helped enable abuses of juveniles. Now, instead of moving quickly and deliberately away from large institutions, the state has chosen to compound the error, by embracing a conservator’s report that stresses security and surveillance (including staff uniforms, denounced in the 70s), by placing prison officials in charge who seem inclined to turn back the clock at TYC. This week, the legislature cannot afford to settle for another quick fix.
See also Grits' pre-hearing coverage and these recent guest columns about the Texas Youth Commission: