Yesterday in the Houston Chronicle, columnist Lisa Falkenberg suggested another problem with placing TYC facilities in rural areas: Insular, "friendly" small-town grand juries and prosecutors may be unwilling to charge TYC employees with abuse ("Are some grand juries too friendly?," May 15). Her story focuses on a no-billed case from December in Crockett:
The new TYC special prosecution unit was amazed when the Houston County grand jury returned with a no-bill, since all the elements of the offense in the statute were plainly visible on the video:
A guard pins an unruly teen inmate against a wall in a small room at a Texas Youth Commission facility in Crockett. The youth isn't going anywhere.
His ankles are shackled, his wrists bound to waist chain. A pair of guards loiter nearby. One sporting a blue letter jacket displaying the letter "C" seems to find the scene humorous and smiles broadly as he walks away.
Then he turns back. Without hesitation, "C" reaches for the inmate's ankle restraints and yanks his feet out from under him. The inmate, unable to brace himself, falls flatly on his face, blood from his busted chin staining the floor. The guard who has been restraining him lands on top of him.
"C" leaves the room and appears to nonchalantly describe to a group of employees congregating in a reception area outside how he yanked the inmate's chain. A supervisor inspects the inmate. A staffer mops up the blood. "C" is fired a short time later.
Surveillance video captures the whole ordeal, which happened on Dec. 20.
[Inspector General Bruce] Toney and Gina DeBottis, head of the Special Prosecution Unit, fear that in some counties, "friendly" grand juries and hesitant district attorneys are reluctant to punish TYC employees, either because they're neighbors or part of an institution that's vital to the community's livelihood.Some of this is just a lack of "want to" by local DAs. That's what's held up any prosecution of the original TYC sex abuse allegations in Pyote,, and now we see that DAs in Houston and Hidalgo County similarly aren't too aggressive about prosecuting abuse cases.
"Maybe it's the small town or county attitude of, 'Hey, that's my neighbor, I grew up with him, I grew up with her, I'm not going to see them go to jail over a juvenile that's done nothing but cause trouble all his life,' " Toney said.
Whatever the cause, Toney says any reluctance to indict hinders his office's efforts to protect youth from abuse.
"Why do they even need us?" Toney told me. "If we can't get the good, valid cases true-billed, then there's really no need for us to exist."
District attorneys in two counties identified as problematic dismissed accusations of unfairness. Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney Rene Guerra, whose county no-billed 10 official oppression and assault cases involving TYC employees in January alone, says that he believes his grand jurors acted appropriately.
Grand juries in Texas are largely tools of the local DA's office. There's an old courthouse saying that a prosecutor can get a ham sandwich indicted if they like. So when you see ten abuse cases dismissed in a single month in Hidalgo County, that speaks to the DA's own commitment as much as the grand jury's judgments about the facts.
The DAs, for their part, say the Lege created a new bureaucracy with the TYC special prosecutor that "doesn't need to be there." But would anybody even know about such cases being silently no-billed if these new oversight offices weren't there? It's only because the Lege created new oversight mechanisms that the public even has the opportunity to know what's happening and debate the topic.
Now certainly I don't want special prosecutors or local DAs to become the enforcers of TYC's human resources policy, but the incident described by Falkenberg is a straight up assault, and a rather sadistic, self-congratulatory one at that.
At least the fellow was promptly fired. A couple of years ago at TYC, I'm not sure that would have been the outcome.