Tuesday, November 01, 2016

News of juvie prison rape should cause Lege to prioritize PREA compliance

Grits experienced a terrible moment of deja vu upon seeing Brandi Grissom's report in the Dallas News that, "Officials at the state youth prison agency are investigating a suspected serial sexual predator among corrections officers at a juvenile lockup in Gainesville." For me, seeing the story brought me back to Nate Blakeslee's January 2007 investigative report in the Texas Observer about sexual abuse at what was then the Texas Youth Commission. His story set off a chain of events which led to the dismantling and renaming of the agency, which reemerged from a troubled conservatorship renamed the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Brandi attributed some recent problems to budget cuts and rising inmate numbers:
As the agency's population and facilities shrunk, so did the budget that lawmakers approved. But the population has begun to increase, and on Thursday the agency reported that it is housing 15.5 percent more youths than it has the budget to serve. Unruh said three of the five secure state facilities are short-staffed.
Grits is surprised to hear this because I was under the impression Sen. John Whitmire passed legislation last year aimed at shifting more juvenile offenders into community supervision, though the final version was much neutered from what he originally proposed. Still, this news runs counter to expectations set during the 2015 Lege session that more troubled youth would be supervised in the community. Instead, we're sending more to state youth prisons.

The agency says solving these problems will require a big investment:
While lawmakers told the agency to cut nearly $17 million from its budget for the 2018-19 biennium, the agency has said it needs nearly $170 million more than it is allotted to keep up with the growing population and meet federal rape prevention requirements, among other needs.
Decarceration of juvenile prisons in Texas has been a major success story of the last decade, and this news doesn't mitigate that. A 15 percent increase following a 80 percent reduction still amounts to perhaps 150 kids, so that doesn't explain a $170 million budget request, much of which likely stems from facility upgrades and other changes to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Indeed, given this unsettling news, compliance with PREA seems more important than ever for TJJD, so maybe the Lege should consider getting up off resources to help them make that happen.

So far, this hasn't blown up the way Blakeslee's story did back in the day, One wonders if the episode was uncovered because of reforms implemented after that 2007 upheaval that made it easier for youth to complain and more likely the agency would react when they did? It'd be interesting to see a comparison of the post-'07 reforms and the details of this case to see where changes either a) helped identify and remove the wrongdoer or b) failed to prevent his alleged misconduct as was hoped. Certainly hiring the guy after he left TDCJ under a cloud of accusations, which TJJD knew about, raises some red flags, which Brandi's story ably articulates.

The fact that the TYC transition went on for years and was such a mess for so long probably contributes to public officials' reticence to jump down the agency's throat, as happened ten years ago almost instantly when news of sexual abuse of kids arose near the beginning of session. Nobody wants to relive that leap-before-you-look fiasco (your correspondent included), which took years to resolve itself, so I'd expect state leaders to move more deliberately this time around. Still, it's pretty obvious such situations haven't been eliminated, so clearly more must be done.

RELATED: From the Dallas News editorial board.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately most of the funding for "Closer to Home" is earmarked for placement of youth in the facilities that have been failing for years. Placement in private or county operated facilities that are not in the youth and family's community is not effective.

Anonymous said...

Nearly all the funding for diversions are for placements. The state is not allowing placement in programs that might be the best suited for the kid but are not in Texas. All TJJD facilities are now PREA inspected and certified and many county departments are now so PREA does not prevent a bad thing from happening, neither does the OIO even though they are taking credit for "discovering" this act.
Sometimes getting the kids out of their neighborhoods may be what saves their lives.