We must acknowledge that in this case the process appeared to work as it was intended. The new Ombudsman reported abuses after a personal visit to the facility, the agency followed up rapidly, and action was taken to rectify the problem. That's how things were supposed to work when legislators enacted SB 103. I've said before the Lege added new layers of oversight but didn't address TYC's fundamental problems, but in this case the added oversight caused conditions to improve for these youth.
"There is a greater sense of fear and intimidation in this facility than perhaps any other I have been to," Mr. Harrell wrote. He also noted that:
•Some young inmates were kept in "malodorous and dark" security cells for five weeks. They were allowed to leave, in shackles, only once a day for a shower.
•There was an "over-reliance" on the use of pepper spray.
•Inmates "complain regularly of discovering insects in their food."
TYC announced Tuesday that its inspector general's office, as well as Department of Public Safety troopers, were investigating. TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said other agencies, including the state auditor's office and the attorney general's office, could join the investigation. (Ed. note: See the pdf of Harrell's report.)
So score one for the Lege on TYC - I haven't felt able to say that much, so I'm glad to congratulate them when their new system works for once.
Meanwhile, over at Texas Prison Bidness we get more background on the Geo/Coke County history of problems:
Coke County was home to one of the worst scandals in private prison history back in the 1990s when GEO, then called Wackenhut, hired a man who’d been arrested for a sex offense against a child, to work as a "lead careworker" at the prison, which then held young girls.
The man, Rufino Garcia, sexually assaulted 15 year-old Sarah Lowe, and continued to harass and threaten her after her release. Wackenhut settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money. Lowe, distraught because the lawsuit allowed the company to avoid responsibility for the incident, committed suicide the same day the settlement was finalized.
Again in 2007, a Coke County staffer was fired after TYC learned he had a previous conviction for exposing himself to a child (while a juvenile). The staff member maintained that he revealed the conviction during the hiring process. ...
The overall operational problems continue to mount for GEO in Texas. In July, Idaho moved its prisoners out of GEO's Dickens County in the wake of an inmate suicide lock-up siting "squalid" conditions.
The company then drew fire in Laredo for an apparent quid pro quo deal involving scholarship checks exchanged for zoning permits and water and electrical hookups. The company was also recently sued over alleged medical neglect of an inmate at it's Pearsall immigrant detention center.
Good blogging from TPB, huh?
Earlier this summer, the Dallas Morning News examined the Coke County unit's record and discovered it had more sustained complaints than any other TYC contract unit. It was clear from their report that big problems existed there (see this interactive graphic from DMN and click on the Coke County unit). Here are just a few incidents reported by DMN:
[A staff member] has filed with a Tom Green county court for child support on a child that she claims was fathered by youth. [Youth] was a resident at Coke County from 01/18/02 through 05/17/02.So it's not that agency officials didn't know before now. Even if they hadn't been out there and the four employees paid to monitor the facility weren't doing their jobs, these problems were all reported in the state's leading newspaper. There's really no excuse for administrators not acting faster when they saw the Dallas News analysis, except, I suppose, that there's only so many hours in the day.
Youth states staff instigated the fight between him and his roommate. Youth states they were told by staff that they wanted to see them fight, and as long as they did not see blood, they would not get into trouble.
Officer Green admitted to having a relationship with resident [youth], including allowing the resident to "rub up against her" at different times, as well as bringing in contraband, such as food, candy and hygiene items.
Youth alleged that staff gave youth a camera and cell phone. Staff also exchanged letters with you and [youth] reported that [youth] and staff were having a relationship. The staff resigned on 12/13/06. ...
Youth stated in a 5 page letter that a former female staff brought in contraband items such as snuff and cigarettes. Staff also allegedly performed oral sex on the resident in the fire exit hallway on the dorm in return for the youth assaulting an officer.
But that's why I say SB 103 worked in this case - TYC administrators appeared to listen to the Ombudsman's views when they'd ignored the media and hundreds of youth complainants. So thank heaven for small favors, and in this case thanks to legislators on behalf of 200 kids formerly housed in squalor in Coke County.
UPDATE: See the Austin Statesman quoting local officials calling the closure a "publicity stunt" and claiming the move was unjustified. Sen. John Whitmire defended the closure and called for an investigation of the nine other lockps operated by the Geo Group in Texas. The Dallas News confirms a report by a Grits commenter (below) that seven TYC employees were fired as a result of the Coke County imbroglio. In the Abilene Reporter News, local officials say TYC is on a "witch hunt" and put the total number of local jobs affected (including Geo and at the school district) at 180. The San Angelo Standard Times reports that 140 Geo employees in Bronte were dismissed from their positions Wednesday. Also, "Millions are still owed on the private facility. ... Bronte's economy may be crippled without it."