Kiss the evening sky and say bye, bye bye,As is usual, the drumbeat of bad news about the Texas Youth Commission failed to cease just because of I was away from the blog for a few days.
Tomorrow knows no sorrow like today,
And should it come to pass the day's no better than the last,
We'll live it best we can, anyway.- Terry Hendrix, "Hey Now," The Art of Removing Wallpaper
Civil lawsuit filed against GEO Group for alleged Coke County abuses
The Brooklyn-based blog JuvieNation brings the word that:
Seven inmates who were held at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center have filed a federal civil rights suit against the GEO Group, the AP reports. The Texas Youth Commission facility, which was handed over to the private prison behemoth GEO Group in 2003, was abruptly shut down in October after a surprise TYC audit found “unsafe conditions” at the facility. ...
According to the AP, the inmates allege “they were mentally, physically and sexually abused in 2006 and early 2007 by David Andrew Lewis, 24, who worked the night shift until he was fired in March.” Lewis, a registered sex offender, was dismissed after TYC officials learned he was on the public sex offender registry. Lewis claims he divulged his sex offender status when he applied for the position. A GEO spokesman had no comment.
Howard Witt at the Chicago Tribune brings news that a former JCO already accused of sexually molesting several youth has been indicted for allegedly assaulting a mentally disturbed girl at the Ron Jackson unit in Brownwood. However, "youth prison authorities have declined to grant clemency to the girl." The Paris News has more, including news that the Governor's office is reconsidering the case as of Friday. This girl was the same young arsonist whose story was paired by Witt in a feature last spring with Shaquanda Cotton, who was released after a much-celebrated media circus.
Though originally the story was framed to portray Cotton receiving a comparatively raw deal, possibly based on race, as Witt has followed up the story has shifted, demonstrating that the travails of the mentally ill in Texas youth prisons create their own types of discrimination and their own horror stories.
The question of clemency for this one girl, however compelling her individual case, symbolizes the plight of many more mentally ill youth in TYC, just like the adult prison system has become the de facto treatment of last resort (and sometimes first resort) for many mentally ill Texans. Hopefully this case will inspire not just new attention to the needs of this one teenager, but to the staggering human and monetary costs of underinvesting in mental health treatment before people wind up in prison. Particularly in the wake of draconian budget cuts in 2003, but really throughout its history, Texas has failed to provide sufficient mental health treatment in community settings, and instead simply criminalizes anti-social behaviors, somehow expecting punishment to send a rational message to an irrational mind.
NY Times: Feds should sue over "Spray First" force policy
Meanwhile, the New York Times published yet another staff editorial last week ("Harsh Treatment of Youthful Offenders," Dec. 8) criticizing TYC's proposed "Spray First" policy requiring officers to use pepper spray before manual restraints. The editorial follows a recent public hearing and a public policy report criticizing the practice from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The Times suggested that if TYC enacts the new policy, the US Department of Justice should sue the agency and take matters into their own hands:
Reader Poll on Future of TYC
In a worrying sign that the right lessons have not been learned, the commission’s new leadership is proposing a rule change so it can make more frequent use of pepper spray against unruly detainees. Juvenile justice experts, the federal courts and the Justice Department have all condemned excessive use of pepper spray.
Pepper spray is a caustic substance that produces burning and respiratory distress and can also cause nerve damage. In addition to being inhumane, the policy is counterproductive. It undermines institutional discipline, further angering and alienating young detainees.
The agency claims that the new policy is necessary to help understaffed institutions maintain control. It also insists that the spray will be judiciously used. In a lawsuit filed earlier this year, however, Texas child welfare advocates charged that the system was using pepper spray excessively, including on mentally ill detainees who were supposed to be exempted. Among the cases cited in court documents was that of a mentally ill 15-year-old who was said to have been sprayed three times while attempting to harm himself.
These accounts are reminiscent of the heart-wrenching cases in Los Angeles County, Calif., where authorities were called to account for pepper-spraying pregnant girls, suicidal youth and detainees whom doctors had ordered exempted because of respiratory problems. Faced with the threat of a federal lawsuit, Los Angeles County reformed its disciplinary practices. According to a recent analysis by the Washington-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the county achieved its improvements by retraining its staff, improving mental health services and embracing less violent systems of crisis management.
Texas needs to follow the same course. If it will not, the Justice Department should ensure that it does.
At this point, given that TYC continues to insist on ignoring expert advice and plowing ahead with its pepper spray policy, not to mention driving away its core staff in droves, a DoJ lawsuit seems like a likely possible outcome; in fact, maybe it should have been one of the options on last week's reader poll, which posed the question:
Which will happen first at the Texas Youth Commission?The third of readers (150 voted, in addition to 106 comments on the post posing the question so far) who thought that more facility closures will be announced are probably betting with the odds - with staffing so low and the agency underbudgeted for the biennium, it's hard to imagine how the trends that would force further downsizing can be reversed without an infusion of both money and more importantly competent leadership. At the moment, neither appear to be forthcoming.
- The National Guard or state police are called in to guard TYC facilities because they're shortstaffed (9%)
- Acting Executive Director Dimitria Pope is relieved of her position (22%)
- A new conservator is appointed (11%)
- TYC announces more facility closures (34%)
- The 81st (2009) Texas Legislature convenes (22%)
As for replacing Acting Executive Director Dimitria Pope, the 22% who thought she'd be removed next probably were engaging in wishful thinking. Supposedly candidates being asked to become TYC's next "conservator" have been told that Ms. Pope is a mandatory part of the package, a requirement that convinced a couple of good possible choices to turn the Governor down for the job.
Most readers don't appear to think that staffing problems would come to a head - only 9% thought outside agencies would have to be called in for emergency staffing of youth prisons. But readers were similarly pessimistic that a new conservator would be found who is willing to take the thankless job, with only 11% thinking a new conservator is coming soon, despite evidence the Guv's folks are prowling for candidates.
That pessimism may be well-founded if it's true the TDCJ transplants currently running TYC have been declared untouchable. Who would take the job under the condition that the people who've nearly wrecked the place and alienated most of their staff all must keep their jobs?
In any event, 22% of readers voted with me on this one, that the 81st Legislature occurs before any of those things. In other words, what will happen? Probably the worst possible outcome: Nothing. Things will just stay really screwed up, the people in charge won't be held accountable, legislators running for re-election will tell their constituents the agency is "fixed," and 2009 will roll around with little having changed from the status quo.
I hate to encourage such pessimism, but I fear state leaders have missed their most important opportunity to reform the agency, and that the malaise that's set in may become semi-permanent. After all, it's easier to do nothing than make any of the bold moves that would actually be required to pull the agency out of this quagmire.
Should the DoJ get involved? Probably. At this point I don't think they could mess things up any worse.