Andrea Rogers barely recognized the sullen teen sitting across from her as her 17-year-old son Brandon.
With eyes swollen shut, teeth chipped and a constant migraine, the boy — an inmate at the Evins Regional Juvenile Facility in Edinburg — worried about his mother’s reaction to his altered appearance.
A September 2009 beating by fellow inmates left Brandon so doubtful of correctional officers’ ability to protect him that he voluntarily secluded himself in the facility’s isolated security ward. He has refused to rejoin the general population for more than seven months.
“He’s all broken out. He’s super-duper skinny. He looks unhealthy,” said Rogers, his mother, after a recent visit with her son. “He begs me not to come see him. He doesn’t want me to see him like that.”
While Evins has taken substantial steps toward improving its record of protecting inmates’ civil rights in the past four years, problems still persist at the facility, a recent federal audit shows. ...Investigators with the Texas Youth Commission — the agency charged with oversight of Evins and the state’s nine other juvenile lockups — eventually determined that guards failed to provide adequate supervision on the day Brandon was assaulted.
The correctional officer monitoring his dorm walked away for eight minutes, allowing a group of teens all the time they needed to enter his room unnoticed and beat him, according to a Feb. 2 letter sent to his mother outlining the incident.
This narrative brings to mind several topics that Grits has focused on regularly. First, it points to the absurdity of making graffiti a felony in many circumstances including when performed at schools, churches and community centers - the places youth spend the most time. (Only felons can be sent to TYC.)
This youth had no business being sent to prison with more violent offenders who wound up victimizing him; that's a counterproductive punishment for graff writing. He's been exposed to more serious criminality in TYC than he ever would have participated in wandering the streets of his hometown with a paint can. This example reinforces why so much research on effective community supervision emphasizes keeping lower risk offenders away from more serious criminals instead of putting them all in the same environment. When that happens, low-risk offenders pick up both knowledge, criminal connections, and sometimes, as in this case, risk being victimized themselves. Graffiti is a local problem that should be handled locally. Making the offense prison eligible in so many circumstances was a big mistake.
Second, one unfortunate aspect of all the TYC reforms after the sex-scandal broke in 2007 was how few changes specifically targeted the Evins Unit in Edinburg. I say that because, if you were to rank the agency's biggest problem units before the scandal broke in the media, Evins would have been at the top of anybody's list (which is why it's presently under federal oversight). Brandon's case is not the first time failure to provide adequate staffing at Evins left inmates unsupervised and resulted in violence, something that clearly hasn't been resolved by ongoing federal litigation.
Evins has come a long way since , and the facility is almost unrecognizable, said Superintendent Billy Hollis.
The old barracks-style housing, which monitors said contributed to the escalation of violence, has been entirely replaced by mostly single-cell pods.
A new incentive-based behavior management program offering television time, board games and sketch paper for good behavior has begun to catch on with most inmates.
Periodically shifting guards to different duty posts has largely eliminated the opportunity for specific staff members to develop unhealthy relationships with individual teens.
And for the first time since the Justice Department began its twice-yearly audits of the facility, reports of abuse and misconduct dropped during the first quarter of the 2010 fiscal year, which ended in November.
On a recent tour, Hollis pointed to one of the 900 surveillance cameras that have been installed across the facility as the primary factor in stopping the violence. With almost every minute of life recorded, administrators can better investigate incidents when they occur.
“Cameras are a part of everyday life here,” Hollis said. “They’re everywhere. They see everything.”
To say the least, the incident described in the article's lede seems to contradict superintendent's claims of improvement, or at least complicate them. Many of those structural changes - the installation of cameras, moving away from barracks-style dorms - were implemented at other TYC units as well.
However, changing the culture among staff is a separate problem that the Justice Department clearly thinks still hasn't been solved. "Stories like Brandon’s, coupled with reports of inmate-on-inmate extortion, gaps in guard supervision and continued staff frustration with new policies and procedures prompted U.S. Justice Department auditors to urge continued court-ordered monitoring in a report released earlier this month," wrote Roebuck.
RELATED: See Evins' agreed order (pdf) with the feds.