Thanks to Gidding staff for a great visit
First, the staff I met, to a person, were wonderful, both welcoming and professional - it was a LOT different from interacting with staff at TDCJ units. I can't say everyone who works at Giddings is that way, but from all the grousing by employees on Grits, I think I expected folks to be a bit more alienated in their jobs. (Also, incidentally, most staff I met had never heard of Grits for Breakfast, so some of you TYC folks need to do a better job of spreading the word among your co-workers about this blog!)
Because of the holiday, I was disappointed not to get to see the metal shop and the chapel, both of which I was told were usually "must see" stops on the nickel tour, but both kids and staff were particularly proud of their welding/trades program and praised it in glowing terms.
Shut up and have a Happy Thanksgiving
As for the Thanksgiving dinner - because after all isn't that what's most important about the holiday? - the kids at Giddings had a hearty, traditional meal including both turkey and ham, yams, stuffing and cranberry sauce, with pecan and pumpkin pie for dessert. And it was good! If they'd served me the same thing in the Luby's I'd have felt just fine about it. Will Harrell tells me he's never had a bad meal at a TYC unit, though the portions are usually smaller than yesterday's holiday spread.
However fine the food, though, an odd atmosphere hung over the cafeteria since kids were forced to eat their "special" meal in silence within 20 minutes. Holiday meals emphasize the universal fact that eating in human culture is not only about sustenance - eating is a social event, a bonding ritual performed by social animals. A dog may take a bone and go hide alone to eat it; humans gather to eat with those they care about.
The rule against youth talking during meals supposedly is for the benefit of security, but it's not like the kids don't have plenty of chance to communicate with each other elsewhere. Seeing it imposed during Thanksgiving dinner especially emphasized to me the thoughtless bureaucratic cruelty of this regulation. The holiday message sent seemed to be: "Here, shut up and be thankful."
No 12-1 staffing ratio at Giddings
Much has been written here and elsewhere about staffing ratios at TYC, and yesterday's visit confirmed that understaffing continues to be a problem. I wished later I'd counted heads in each one, but not a single one of the pods we visited met the 12-1 youth to staff ratio required by law. Twenty to one was more typical from what I saw. Yes, it was Thanksgiving, but it's not like SB 103 said TYC must maintain a 12-1 ratio except on holidays. And since both employees and youth complained that Giddings regularly lacks sufficient staff, I suspect what I saw wasn't just a reflection of the holiday.
Pragmatism limits pepper spray effectiveness
I asked a lot of kids about the pepper spray question: Without exception, the first reaction of each of them was to laugh out loud.
Every kid knew the use of force policy had changed to allow more frequent use of pepper spray, and they could describe exactly how and when OC spray was applied on the continuum. In fact, they all knew the rules and the impact of new "Spray First" procedures much better than the administrators in Austin, who keep botching decisions on use of force in ways that keep dragging them back to court.
One kid in the capital offenders pod described to me an instance that shows the on-the-ground absurdity of the "Spray First" policy, which says that staff are required to use pepper spray before putting their hands on youth to control them. Since staff could not manually restrain him first, he said (while several other inmates giggled and added details that would embarrass the storyteller), when an overweight staff member tried to spray him, he ran to get away. (Shocking, huh?) He ran around the room, jumped over cots, bobbed and weaved around a table, and did all he could to keep from being sprayed. All the while the corpulent JCO vainly chased him about the pod, attempting to spray him but instead filling the air with a mist of OC spray that affected the other kids more than the offender.
The worst part, one of his giggling cohorts added, was that the event left several kids' cots soaked in pepper spray, and the sheets, he said, were only washed once per week. I can only imagine what it's like to sleep on pepper-spray soaked sheets, but the anecdote confirmed my sense that TYC administrators in Austin have not thoroughly thought through the new use of force rules (for which they will head back to court on Monday).
The truth is that several of the kids I spoke to would do a much better job of crafting a workable use of force policy than Dimitria Pope and "Bronco" Billy Humphrey have done. They knew exactly what worked, what didn't, and how youth responded to different situations. Maybe they should be given a little more input, and former TDCJ wardens should be given a little less.
Euphemism of the Day: Behavioral Management Program
As the juvie corrections field has professionalized, a pseudo-professional jargon has arisen, employing a variety of euphemisms that take the edge off of the harsher but more accurate descriptions of particular prison tactics. One of those euphemisms is the "Behavior Management Program," or BMP.
Kids "on BMP" are in solitary confinement. They live in what amounts to a dungeon, in small individual cells secured by thick metal doors with a slot at knee level for passing through food trays. It's known as a "Behavior Management Program" because supposedly kids earn their way out of solitary through improved behavior, at first being allowed to spend pockets of time with other kids, then slowly being integrated back into the general population. Six kids at Giddings (out of a total of approximately 450) were on BMP when we visited.
Most kids on suicide watch need mental health care
The same dungeon setting where the BMP kids are held also houses kids on suicide watch, though thankfully no one was there when we visited. The fellow watching over this section said that, in his experience at Giddings, most kids on suicide watch had a significant mental health problem. They either were there waiting for space to open up at the TYC mental health facility in Corsicana, or they had transferred from the Corsicana unit and probably needed to go back.
His observations reminded me of the situation in Coke County where a TYC youth was in suicide watch for weeks waiting for space to open up in Corsicana. By the time the facility was closed down over poor conditions, the youth was smearing his own feces on the wall and licking it off. Acting TYC executive director Dimitria Pope told a legislative committee last month she was unaware of a problem with delays in transferring mentally ill youth. However this JCO's comments made me think that wasn't just a problem at that Geo Group run facility in Coke County, but that Corsicana may just not have adequate capacity to handle kids in TYC with significant mental health needs. Or if it does, the bureaucracy cannot identify kids who need these services or transfer them quickly enough once they do.
Lack of programming worries youth
Ironically, I spent a lot less time asking questions of kids at Giddings than I did answering them, and the #1 concern expressed to me by youth was the lack of specialized treatment programs, especially sex offender and chemical dependency treatment. They wanted to know, basically, why it didn't exist or how they could get into those programs, which in many cases are required as part of their sentence.
One fellow told me his minimum two-year stay would be up in just a couple of months, but that his sentence required him to complete a sex offender treatment program that he hadn't even begun. And he wasn't alone - I was asked over and over by kids how they could get the treatment services they needed to complete their incarceration stint. These kids understood exactly what was expected and required of them, and for the most part they were willing to comply. But they were extremely frustrated that they weren't being given a chance to meet those expectations.
Those were the broad highlights. Thanks to Will Harrell for letting me tag along yesterday, and to everyone I met at Giddings for an enjoyable and informative visit.