|CIA Phoenix Program standard (source)|
Despite its inapt appellation, TJJD today voted to open up a new isolation wing previously shuttered in Mart, TX. The Texas Tribune yesterday offered up a preview of the decision. Reporter Emily Foxhall quoted TJJD spokesman Jim Hurley saying the unit would not "be considered a lockdown or isolation facility," but "would involve reopening an unused, 24-bed dorm within the already existing Mart facility" Having examined the new rules governing the so-called "Phoenix" program, however, they say "youth are assigned to individual housing units," not a "dorm." Upon further questioning, Hurley told Grits the new unit will consist of three pods, each with eight cells and a common area with two JCOs assigned to each pod.
The facility won't quite be the equivalent of juvie "ad seg" (the euphemism for solitary confinement in the adult system). At TDCJ, inmates in ad seg get one hour recreation per day and no other time outside their cells. In the Phoenix program, the rules require a minimum of five hours per day outside their cells, four of them for education. A letter from advocates to the TJJD board declared, "There are no requirements for out-of-cell time beyond 4 hours for education and 1 hour for large muscle exercise," citing proposed rules for the Mart facility. "While we have been assured that the intent is to give youth 16 hours of programing, there is nothing in the rule itself that speaks to this as a requirement. Keeping youths in cells for 19 hours per day will worsen, not improve, their behavior."
It's difficult for Grits to understand how anyone thinks 24 beds in Mart will solve security problems. The Statesman's Mike Ward reported that:
At Giddings — where gang activity and disruptions triggered a legislative investigation in April and demands for action to curb chronic violence that had left both youths and staff injured — a new report for the week ending Tuesday showed 52 youths requested to be placed in security cells for protection.Beyond Giddings, according to that same weekly incident report (which Grits obtained from TJJD), the agency reported a whopping 1,388 security referrals last week, of which 72 were self-referrals (including the 52 at Giddings). Staff referrals included 12 youth-on-staff assaults and 43 youth-on-youth assaults. At those rates, 24 secure beds will fill up pretty darn quickly.
That was among 352 youths who were referred to security that week.
Which raises the question, with that many security referrals, how will the 24 beds be prioritized? Standards for when youth will be placed in the Phoenix program are amorphous and subjective. Says the advocate letter, "The eligibility criteria ... include a catch-all for youth who engage in 'any other major rule violation' if the placement is directed by the executive director 'or designee.'" Further, "Criteria for completion of stages in the Phoenix program are vague and highly subjective," an assessment with which your correspondent concurs. (Hurley told me there will be more rules coming soon that may fill in some of the detail.)
With 1,388 security referrals and 55 assaults in a single week (remember, there are only 1,100 youth in the entire system), will 24 new security beds make a difference? It sounds to me like whether the new wing is opened or not, Texas Appleseed's Deborah Fowler is 100% correct that real security solutions must be identified at the unit level. This "fix" is a band-aid at best, kicking discussions about structural problems further and further down the road. There are already isolation cells at the campuses. All this seems to do is add transportation logistics and management of yet another new program to all the agency's existing security issues and admin duties. Via email, Fowler commented to Grits:
Why the board is so confident that the answer is a NEW program is beyond me, when the agency hasn’t been able to effectively implement the programs that are on the ground now.
Keep in mind that the “enhanced” version of ReDirect (and by the way, “enhanced” simply means they’ve done away with the limit on the number of days a youth can spend in the program, and have done away with the requirements that youth are out of their cells for 8 hours/day) has been in place at Giddings for at least a month – and we are STILL seeing problems at that facility.There's notably no limit on how long youth may be placed in the Phoenix program. Hurley said everyone who enters must complete Aggression Replacement Therapy (ART) which takes a minimum of 10 weeks, so that's likely the minimum length of stay for those sent there. But in the draft rules there is no maximum, just like max limits were eliminated for the "ReDirect" program (which is the new name for Behavioral Management Plans, which in turn was for years the Texas juvenile-justice euphemism for on-campus solitary confinement).
Further, it's unclear exactly how youth end up in the Phoenix program and how they get out. Reported the Trib:
Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, said she doesn't believe the new Phoenix program or the change to the Redirect program are solutions to the violence. She said the Phoenix program rules lack specifics about which youths would be eligible and when they could leave. And she said even if the Phoenix program is approved, she doubts it will live up to TJJD's promises, saying the agency has failed to adequately implement similar programs in the past. Instead, Fowler believes independent experts should be hired to assess the problems and suggest solutions.
Said Fowler, "The overriding concern is that whatever this program looks like, simply moving kids from one facility to another is not going to solve the crisis," That's also my own gut reaction, but the TJJD board voted to move forward with the idea, anyway, so time will tell. (FWIW, I sincerely hope my pessimism is unfounded.)
Finally, I just about coughed up a hairball upon reading this commentary from Mike Ward's story:
[State Sen. John] Whitmire said while he respects the advocacy groups, he's disappointed in their position.Was Sen. Whitmire letting "the administration and the board do their job" when he accused the executive director of a "hug a thug" mentality and enlisted an oft-favored reporter to write a one-sided hit piece lambasting Cherie Townsend's management decisions, directly leading to her resignation? I respect Sen. Whitmire, but if he wants to micro-manage agency decisions then he can hardly blame advocates for their participation. If he's not content to "let the administration and the board do their job," why in heaven's name should they refrain from comment? It's not like anybody thinks the agency is doing the job well.
"I think they need to let the administration and the board do their job for the people of Texas,” he said. "...We’re trying to save these troublemakers. By going to Mart it might keep them from going to the adult system.”
MORE: See Ward's coverage of the TJJD meeting, where Jay Kimbrough was hired as the new executive director.