Thursday, March 27, 2014

Another speculative private prison deal implodes: Notes from Senate oversight hearing on TJJD

Most of what little press coverage there was of Tuesday's Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing exercising oversight of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department focused on Chairman John Whitmire's pronouncement that the agency  is "broken." Reported AP, “Juvenile judges have told me they’ve given up on this department,” Whitmire said. “They feel like they get better services for the youth in the communities they are coming from.” The thing is, Whitmire has made the same pronouncement so many times in the past, there's an extent to which it's lost its edge. We've long ago learned there's no short-term fix to the agency's ongoing woes and, as retiring executive director Mike Griffiths told the committee, the agency will need time and long-term stability of leadership to truly fix what ails it. (Go here to watch the hearing for yourself.)

To me, the more interesting development on Tuesday concerned the committee's squelching of yet another rural county's ploy to use incarceration - in this case, of juveniles - as an economic development gambit. In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission operated 14 secure juvenile detention facilities. Today they're down to five. The ones that remain are large facilities with antiquated layouts not conducive to what nearly everybody recognizes as modern best practices: Smaller facilities aimed at providing rehabilitation and education services as opposed to mere incarceration.

Local officials spent $700,000 rehabbing the old Crockett State School facility as a detention center, Crockett Mayor Wayne Mask told the committee. He expressly disagreed with the assertion by Whitmire, Sen. Juan Hinojosa, and others that prisons shouldn't be thought of as "economic development," declaring that in the "real world" that's exactly how local communities viewed them.

When the Crockett State School closed its doors in 2011, said Mask, the town lost one of its largest employers that had provided upwards of 300 jobs. The facility doesn’t lend itself to many kinds of businesses, he said, so they decided to turn it into a regional juvenile detention center to house delinquent youth from surrounding counties, contracting with a private prison company called Cornerstone to manage operations. The company held a recent job fair seeking applications for 40 positions and 400 people showed up hoping to fill them, said the mayor. But the economics of the deal won't work, the committee was told, unless Cornerstone can count on at least 70 youth detainees from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Chairman Whitmire and the rest of the committee put an end to those hopes on Tuesday, telling local officials and their legislator-representatives that the agency had not given Cornerstone any letter of intent or other official confirmation and, with 400 empty beds at state-owned facilities, would not be authorized to do so. Local media had already portrayed Crockett's reopening as a done deal, so this was quite a slap in the face to the area's officials, who clearly jumped the gun. Whitmire and other senators said that, if the agency were to open new facilities, they would be smaller units in Texas' largest urban areas that contribute the most youth to TJJD's secure facilities - most likely in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. The chairman compared Crockett's situation to Jones County, which built a speculative prison and contracted with a private firm hoping to secure adult TDCJ inmates to fill it. The project went bust when the inmates never materialized.

Outgoing executive director Mike Griffiths spent much of the hearing being berated for mismanagement, in particular for the supposedly high cost ($129K per student per year) of incarcerating TJJD youth. To me, though, the cost issue is a bit of a red herring.  First, youth inmates inherently cost more than adults to incarcerate because by law (and federal court mandates) the state must provide educational and treatment services that for the most part don't exist in the adult system. Moreover, in the wake of the 2007 sex scandals, the Lege installed numerous layers of oversight that must be staffed on the administrative side. Griffiths listed several of them: An auditor, the ombudsman, an inspector general, an administrative investigation division, a youth complaint hotline (euphemistically known as "blue phones"), a monitoring and inspection division, and youth rights specialists, among others. Couple that with 12-1 staffing ratios (quadruple that of county jails) and the agency's educational mission and it's little wonder TJJD has disproportionately more admin staff and higher costs the Texas Department of Criminal Justice pays to house adults.

The three year recidivism rate for TJJD inmates is higher than on the adult side, with 77% rearrested within three years of release and 48% re-incarcerated in either the juvenile or adult systems. OTOH, Griffiths pointed out, the three-year rearrest rate for similar classes of youth kept at the county level is 67%, so not that much lower. And it's possible the TJJD cohort represents, overall, a higher risk group of offenders than those who stay with the counties.

Griffiths also took a lot of crap for not having yet eliminated all staff positions at the Corsicana unit even though the last of the youth moved out of there in December. His reasoning, though, to me seemed sound. The agency was told in a budget rider to close a facility and chose Corsicana. But it cannot finalize that decision until it gets the go-ahead from the Legislative Budget Board, where the House and Senate have been unable to reach an agreement. (Speaker Joe Straus and others have voiced support for keeping the unit open.) Most of the staff positions at Corsicana have already been eliminated. Some of those remaining are trainers - the agency still conducts training in Corsicana for staff from around the state in conjunction with Navarro Junior College. Some are maintenance staff, some work for human resources, and five are JCOs who continue to provide security. (Until LBB pulls the trigger, it's still technically a secure facility.) Griffiths said as soon as LBB made its decision, those last 25 positions would be eliminated or moved to other locales. Until then, he didn't feel he had authority under the rider to shutter it outright.

The most damning indictment of TJJD came not on the financial side but as it relates to security, in particular at the Evins unit in South Texas which was the subject of a truly awful report by the Ombudsman after a December site visit. Grits asked for a copy of the Evins report under open records. I've uploaded the whole thing, for those interested, but here are some lowlights I pulled from the 8-page text:
"The culture on campus degraded." Many incidents were observed including a youth that took food off a staff's tray and staff did not react until I inquired; when staff reacted, the youth continued to eat part of the food he took; the same youth held up movement by refusing to leave the cafe."

"Numerous youths, and one in particular, cursed loudly at staff and visitors repeatedly. Few staff attempted to intervene and that consisted of only asking the youth to quiet down and identifying the visitors to the youth. Youths threw food and created a mess in the cafe by emptying food tray(s) onto the table and floor and completely disregarded staffs' instructions."

"Discussion with staff included that the facility was staffed at approximately sixty seven percent resulting in staff having to work consecutive shifts and being 'burned out' or tired."

"There were several additional incidents of staffs requesting cells be opened with multiple youths around the cells and staff walking away once the cells were opened leaving the youths unsupervised and allowing the youths to fight inside the cells. JCO VI on count was in the office performing administrative functions instead of supervising youths and the other JCO went off the pod creating the opportunity for four youths to assault another youth; male JCO left a cell door open and two youths went in to the open cell and fought, and a female JCO left a cell door open and did not supervise the youths. This resulted in two youths fighting in the cell."

"Some JCO staff reported that some staff had been known to minimize inappropriate staff behavior in reports. ... discussion with some facility management confirmed the allegation."

"Numerous youth complained about a lack of hygiene and clothing items. Discusssion with staff reflected that there had been some shortage and that one dorm lost both the JCO V and VI" (which are supervisory positions).

"A review of all eleven grievances entered this [fiscal] year reflects a lack of video review" by management.

"Educational services are suffering from a lack of teachers and teacher's assistants (TA), teachers' refusal to stay at work past 4:30 despite being exempt employees, and allegations that teacher's aides are performing full teacher functions without being supervised by certified teachers (according to some of the educational staff)."

"Numerous youths and staff complained that some of the teachers are not conducting classroom management except to refer youths to Security. Some of the instances noted were referral for cursing, not being in the right place because the youth was by the door, and not working." According to school staff meeting minutes, the Principal believed "there have been too many referrals to security which are minor and no interventions are being provided. Everyone needs to start utilizing the focus room and any other intervention possible before sending a student to the Security Unit."
The staff involved in leaving cell doors open so youth could fight were fired and some are being prosecuted, the committee was told. Still, the Evins report represents far more serious concerns, to me, than any of the financial critiques. The Ombudsman told the committee that some of the problems occurred because senior managers had been moved to other facilities and their replacements weren't up to snuff. TJJD has moved more experienced people into those positions since the report and she thought that had improved matters, though the problems weren't yet completely fixed.

It should be noted, Evins has long been a problem child for the agency and these sorts of allegations are not new there. For whatever reason, in the time I've observed the agency and its predecessor, it's never been run as professionally as the other four remaining TJJD units.

Several senators, most prominently Sen. Dan Patrick, expressed concern that TJJD classification procedures weren't sufficient to keep very young inmates away from older, more dangerous ones. Patrick was concerned that the sort of bullying of staff by older inmates witnessed by the Ombudsman at Evins might also be victimizing younger inmates. He seemed passionate about the question and it was a fair point.

 By statute, youth can't be housed with others who are more than three years apart in age, but there are moments during the day when they may still come into contact, particularly in educational settings where older youth may be in classrooms just a few doors down from younger ones, the committee was told. That's partly a function of moving from 14 to five units in a short span of time, cramming inmates of varying ages into just a handful of units. The 80% reduction in inmate numbers helped the problem somewhat, but it would be easier to segregate the youngest ones if TJJD operated smaller, regional units instead of larger, rural ones.

Regrettably, Griffiths told the committee, there are still counties sending 10-11 year olds to TJJD despite the 2007 reforms creating disincentives to do so. One thought occurred to me: Perhaps that's a good argument for increasing the minimum age at which counties can send youth to secure state lockups from the current 10 years old to, say, 13 or 14. Most counties already are dealing with those very young offenders on their own and it wouldn't be a great burden to just make it a requirement instead of a strong suggestion that the rest of them do so.

In all, my takeaway from the hearing was somewhat different from the Chairman's pessimistic conclusion that the agency is inherently "broken." The whole thing made me think back to the "blue ribbon panel" created in 2007 to make recommendations (pdf) on TYC reforms. From Tuesday's hearing, it sounds like where the Lege followed that panel's recommendations - such as keeping more juvenile offenders at the county level and reducing both the number of secure state facilities and the number of youth housed there - the reforms have been a success. The problems haven't all gone away but the oversight mechanisms seem to be catching more of them and staff are being held accountable to a greater extent than in the past. By contrast, where the Lege failed to follow the blue ribbon panel's recommendations - e.g., continuing to house youth inmates at larger, antiquated facilities instead of moving to smaller, regional units closer to the urban areas from whence the youth mainly come - significant problems remain.

Making some of those still-needed changes will likely cost more money, not less, so focusing on minimizing per-inmate cost in the short run probably isn't helpful. Anyway, the reforms keeping more offenders at the county level have coincided with a sustained drop in juvenile crime. So even if per-inmate costs are higher, overall costs to the state both for incarceration and from the cost of crime itself to the public are markedly less. In the end, the success or failure of the agency should be judged based on public safety, not cost-per-inmate, and on that score things look a lot better in 2014 than they did back in 2007, even if they still have a long way to go.


Anonymous said...

Whitmire was completely out of control. He spewed so much mis-information. It was embarrassing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I thought many of Whitmire's criticisms and policy suggestions were justified - not on the cost-per-student stuff, but definitely on the Crockett and Evins issues. Still, given the history of the agency and his own committee's role in setting policy, I must admit I didn't understand where all the anger was coming from. I suppose he's engaged in the issue so deeply, it becomes difficult sometimes to see the forest for the trees.

Anonymous said...

This is Whitimire’s mess. It is HIS “Broken” Agency. He “Broke” it. He is really good a pointing fingers. Just three months ago he was bragging how he did this and he did that. Yelp ! he did it alright, he “BROKE IT”.

He has been slowly tearing it apart since Pope was walked out the front door of Central Office.
TJJD will never get an Executive Director to stay as long a Whitmire is in office.

If he wants to shut another facility down then take Evins out. Take his buddy Chuy Hinojosa’s little gang village out where all the violence happens. That place is rotten and they continue to let it operate. If Michele Deitch wants to do a new research paper send her butt to Evins Juvenile Justice Center in Edinburg and lock it down for about two weeks. She might really learns something being in a real cesspool.

Crockett is another mistake. This one slipped in just like Al Price and Brownwood. I am still trying to figure out how they fool them that they shut down a facility when they opened back up a closed facility at Mart and Brownwood. Stroud favors Brownwood and will do anything to save that in the middle of nowhere facility. How much money is the agency spending now transporting all those youth to Brownwood for intake? Waste of tax payer’s money.

Pretty sure Linda Brooke will follow Griffiths path and. The TJJD Board had a back bone about as thick as a Gold Fish.

Anonymous said...

Great reporting here Grits. And great analysis too.

The Crockett story is quite something. As are Corsicana and Evins, but for obviously different reasons.

Bill Bush

Anonymous said...

I'm sure others are more versed in this area than I am, but from what I can tell:
TJJD can't control the number of kids that they have committed to them. That is controlled by the counties (though money goes out to encourage counties to keep kids.) TJJD doesn't control the commitment criteria - that is controlled by the lege. TJJD can't have more than 5 facilities after last session's rider (and building a 'small' placement would also have to be financed), so to have fewer kids per placement, they have to contract beds out somewhere. (If those 400 beds Whitmire is concerned about are filled - we're right back to having too many kids in one place.) To contract beds in urban areas, someone has to be offering the beds. OK, so maybe Crockett is two hours from Houston & farther from other places and not the best choice, so I'd be curious to know which area of Houston has a place for the 100 kids Harris County committed?
The criticism on Evins...well, I'll have to give Whitmire, et. al. that one.

Billy R. Hollis said...

"For whatever reason, in the time I've observed the agency and its predecessor, it's never been run as professionally as the other four remaining TJJD units." Dear Grits, How much time have you spent at the Evins facility? You only know what you read in the Statesman, Tribune or whatever the Lege says when it's in session. I would welcome the opportunity to sit down face to face with you or anyone else who would care to know what the "real" issues at Evins are. Or you can go back and read all of the previous reports (DOJ, Moss Report, etc.). It's been addressed again and again, but nothing has ever been done to correct the problems. And anyone who tried to initiate change was eventually (if not sooner) forced out. Life is but a dream...shaboom, shaboom!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Billy, it's true I've never visited Evins and base my sense of the place from the DOJ evaluation/lawsuit, reported incidents, and various Ombudsman, OIG critiques, etc.. Still, do you disagree with the quoted statement?

Anonymous said...

I agree with 2:22 on the mis-information. There is alot of info that the general public is not made aware of because it disproves what Whitmire said. I have the entire facts regarding everything sspoken there and he said 1/4 truths. To clarify the rider that shut Crockett down allowed the state to transfer ownership to the local entity. That happened. Crockett owns the facility. Crockett contracted with Cornerstone to operate a residential treatment center setting dealing with pre AND post adjudicated juveniles. They are a regional detention center, not a prison. The state is lacking in RTC beds especially here in East Texas. This facility is desperately needed and the state would be wise to commit juveniles there to get them out of the MEGA centers where they have issues. This concept is the best for our youth and what Whitmire didn't say is it cost the state less to contract out for those beds than it does to place them into a current facility. Heck Cornerstone needs to operate ALL the state facilities.

Anonymous said...

1:00 am is right on the money and what the public doesn't know is the the Ombudsmans office is in Whitmires pocket- he edits and dictates what she reports, leaving out many positive facts about the work being done- that office is full of misfits and bullies doing Whitmires bidding. She spends much more time with Whitmire and his staff than her boss. Whitmire has no idea what hes talking about- all research shows smaller facilities closer to homes are better and between closures and now running off and closing good contract providers like Cornerstone he is making that impossible - not to mention that Whitmire hasn't darkened the door of a TJJD facility in years, let alone spent time talking about or acting on what is actually best for kids - which I'd like to remind everyone is the point of this business.

Anonymous said...

Oh Billy let me give you some cheese to go with that whine. Evins hashad plenty of chances to get it right. I am sure every facility is sick and tired of hearing this sad story andtired of send staff down there out of their own budget to help out. Forthe last two to three month very one has been pitching in helping outand, but this has been going on for years. They should not have any morechances. Quit putting youth at risk and shut it down NOW.

Anonymous said...

Let's tie the issue about 17 year olds jot needing to be in the adult system due to their brain development into the recidivism issue. As 8:01 and 8:30 stated mis information placed out there. Look at the population that is committed to TJJD you will see they are predominately older 16 and 17 year old juveniles who stay up to age 19. These are the knuckleheads that didn't get it at the county level, who have had multiple chances at diversion but keep escalating their criminal behavior. They are the ones who will continue along their criminal ways until "their brain fully develops at age 21-25". They seem to be pre-disposed to commit other offenses. Now, look at the definition the LBB utilizes for recidivism. Basicall, if a juvenile "comes into contact with law enforcement" after being released that counts as another referral, who cares if they are adjudicated/found guilty or it is dismissed. Where is due process. Innocent until proven guilty? No, it counts against the numbers so itpushes the recidivism high. If you utilize common sence and take only ones who are found true to the ALLEGED offense the recidivism rate would be below 50%, whis is still high, but not a doomsday, sky is falling statistic that becomes political fodder for those who really don't know any better.

Billy R. Hollis said...

03/28 08:57 I disagree. Evins never had a chance because no one in CO would admit that the problems existed and they did nothing to adequately address them. And by the way, anonymous posts are for cowards. perhaps this year, you could ask Santa for a backbone!

Billy R. Hollis said...

Grits, No, I don't disagree with the statement. But I do wonder that given all of those aforementioned reports, many of which were done during my stint as Superintendent, why nothing ever changed for more than a short while (i.e. after coming out from under the DOJ Agreed Order, ACA Accreditation in Feb/Mar 2011). These two events should have signaled that Evins was on track to turn things around, but as soon as they were over, it was back to business as usual by the same corrupt culture that has been in place at Evins since it opened. Until the culture changes, Evins will never be a viable, effective juvenile corrections facility. Thanx for listening.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, Billy, re: "anonymous posts are for cowards," these TYC/TJJD posts are one of the reasons I still allow anonymous comments. In this environment, employees would be risking their jobs to speak openly about some of this stuff.

When people attack individuals by name while hiding behind anonymity, I agree it's cowardly. But when employees criticize management practices or powerful politicians anonymously, to me that's fair game. Otherwise, they couldn't speak up at all.

Anonymous said...

Has a successor to Griffiths been named yet?

Anonymous said...

It appears that the same issues are continuing,as they have for the past fifteen years. My book "Carnal Society": The Texas-National Sex Scandal,at, contains many actual cases of corruption, mismanagement and abuses in the system...with media endorsement. Hope you enjoy the 'excellent rated book'. Best to you.

Billy R. Hollis said...

Grits, Again, I concur. I just think that if the anonymous person is talking to me personally(a little cheese to go with my whine), and commenting on what I said, they should have the good sense to not put themselves in a position to put their job at risk. I was taught to be open and honest in my dealings with my fellow man and to take responsibility for whatever I say or do. Someone once said "Sometimes you just gotta roll the dice". I wish all the anonymous posters, wherever they are, well.

Anonymous said...

Only one person on here keeps complaining Evins has not gotten a fair chance. Everyone in the whole agency is kind of wondering why they are still open, some of there own people and even question why.
Your right about my identity, but at this point I am about ready to bail if they don't fix something fast.

Anonymous said...

All TJJD facilities are chaotic.

Billy R. Hollis said...

3/28 5:00 pm...That's exactly my point. How many times does CO need to be made aware of these recurring problems and doing basically nothing to fix them? All the corrective action plans in the world will not change the culture or bring about positive change if they are not implemented. In the end, it's the youth and the staff that suffer, while the powers that be pat themselves on the back for the same old ineffective action plans. And for the record, I am just speaking from my personal experience at Evins, not simply complaining about anything. Good luck to you and all of the other staff who wanted to do a good job. You deserved better.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, Central Office does not know how to fix the problems.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the reason the Ombudsman is pointing out these issues now is based upon the possibility she will put in for Griffiths job now that he has stepped down???? Lets just wait and see.....

Anonymous said...

Interesting that TJJD is still acknowledging that they are operating six facility's not just Corsicana. On there web site they list six and in the Executive Director's Report page 2 dated March 30,2014 he reports six facility's.

Anonymous said...

" one in CO would admit that the problems existed..."

Isn't that the same ole story with TYC, now TJJD? More disfunctional than any drunk I ever met.

Anonymous said...

After spending over 25 years with TJJD, I have to agree with Mr. Hollis, Evins has always been the most unsafe facility in the agency and is definitely based on the culture. Overall, I left because as an agency we quit doing what was important and that was providing the youth with opportunities to be successful. I am praying that whatever happens the outcome is favorable for the youth not the board....