Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Legislative committee reports presaged TYC woes

Before Nate Blakeslee and the Texas Observer broke the story of unprosecuted allegations of sexual abuse at a West Texas youth prison, House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden was already demanding the agency enact significant reforms, a fact for which he deserves much credit. In an era filled with complacent lawmakers, he and his committee were taking responsibility for Texas Youth Commission's shortcomings well before the most recent revelations made the front page of the nation's newspapers.

In his interview with Capitol Annex last night, Chairman Madden referenced the House Corrections Committee's Interim Report discussion of TYC (pp. 108-131), published before the allegations at Pyote became public, so I went back and took a look.

Reviewing it again, I ran across a mention on page 109 that Madden had asked then-executive director Dwight Harris in March 2006 to solicit "technical assistance" from the Department of Justice. It'd be interesting to know what that technical assistance constisted of and what were the results, but it speaks well that Chairman Madden was on top of things enough a year ago to understand there were significant problems and seek outside help.

The Corrections Committee heard 12 hours of testimony about TYC on March 22, 2006, according to the report, much of which was from employees, some of whom had been injured by incarcerated youth and said they were not supported in their disciplinary responses by the TYC administration. (Go here for those interim committee webcasts.) The following month the committee visited the TYC facilities in Brownwood and San Saba, both of which have played prominent roles in recent TYC coverage.

One managerial concern as the Pyote story has unfolded is that all the bad publicity will affect TYC's ability to recruit and retain guards at a time when the agency needs to nearly double the number of JCOs or radically restructure itself to manage kids differently.

Today, entry level JCO positions are really crappy jobs, to be frank, especially without significant increases in staffing to make them safe and the kids more secure. Think about it: 24 GOOD kids is a lot for a teacher to handle; a 24-1 guard to TYC inmate ratio is a recipe for disaster. That's got to be the worst babysitting job on the planet, and it pretty much pays like it. Entry level JCOs make $1,816 per month, according to the interim report (see the pay scales on p. 128). Not surprisingly, given the low pay and onerous work environment, 64% of TYC terminations are for attendance, mostly for job abandonment - people just stop showing up for work and are never heard from again.

According to the House Corrections Committee interim report, relying on an email account by TYC staff, at some TYC facilities annual staff turnover has been as high as 70%. The committee recommended a variety of staff retention proposals that may not be enough now that the agency has received such bad publicity.

I mention all this to make several points:

First, if you or someone you know don't mind small town living and a small-town paycheck, head to your nearest TYC facility and apply for a job. They're almost certainly hiring, and they need good people who care.

Second, TYC won't be safe for students or JCOs until staff-student ratios are cut in half, and employment is stabilized so that experienced officers are retained. That either requires a major investment in the current failed system or a complete restructuring - one that is needed, but whose outcome is uncertain. That might include disbanding TYC units modeled after (or converted from) adult prisons and moving to smaller facilities located near urban areas where the kids come from. But who knows how quickly that can happen? There are few good options here.

And finally, as we look back on the unfolding TYC scandal and reporters parse out who knew what when, who acted, and who covered up, it's worth recognizing that Chairman Jerry Madden and the House Corrections Committee a year ago saw TYC's serious managerial shortcomings, expressed concern that these failings contribute to abuse of students and lapses in JCO safety, and demanded that the agency seek outside assistance - essentially an admission that the existing administration wasn't up to the job on its own.

There may be a few gotchas left in the TYC scandals as we discover the full story over time. But it's also good to know that this committee along with Chairman John Whitmire's Senate Criminal Justice Committee, whose own interim report studied and documented skyrocketing abuse rates at TYC, had already figured out that TYC had big problems and needed significant reform. Now we'll see if these folks can use the short-term political capital created by these latest revelations to make needed improvements at TYC agencywide.


tttt said...

Rep. Madden is a super fine fellow. He really cares about Texas. He's just a damn good citizen legislator.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for cutting through the hype! More good people would make us, staff and students, all safer and more successful.
If you believe in the published TYC mission statement, then come on down! If you think it's lip service, then stay home - you won't be helping troubled kids or the staff person next to you. That goes for any new board members as well!

Anonymous said...

Ditto what the previous anonymous said. I'm literally coming unglued right now over the thought that some people in my agency, people I thought I trusted and admired, didn't really believe in that mission. I get ALL of my job satisfaction out of the idea that I'm doing this for the kids who really need it. And right now, I'm finding it really hard to have any motivation to go in every morning. Because while I still believe in the mission...I just don't know that I believe in the people around me any more. I figure I'm not the only person at TYC who's struggling right now. :(

Anonymous said...

I remember about ten years back we made a difference in the kids we worked with. A lot of things have changed since then. The kids are a tougher bunch now days. I have lost faith in the TYC Mission Statement after all I have seen and experienced over the years. Our board members abandoned us. Our administration betrayed us. Now the focus is on staff for being child molesters and abusers. I thought it was administration that did the kids at West Texas and Central Office administration who covered it up.

When I heard a member of the Legislature wanted to pass a law creating a $5000 reward for turning in abuse at TYC I knew it was time to move on. I can see a couple of the little criminals cooking up a scam to frame an officer. The pay off is $5000 with the added bonus of sending a TYC officer to prison. It just doesn’t get any better for the little criminals.

About 25% of the JCO staff at my TYC unit is out on stress leave. In straight talk that means 50+ JCO are out burning up sick time as they look for their next job. Most of the staff is new. I walked through the chow hall the other night and did not recognize any of the 2-10 staff, not even one of them! Most of them won’t be around May first.

I guess I don’t believe in the TYC Mission Statement anymore so I will follow your wise instruction of staying home. I for one am tired of getting screwed and I am not taking any more crap from the politicians or the criminals running TYC. I know we will be leaving the TYC kids in good hands because you have made it clear you are the ultimate TYC Mission orientated staff with all the answers. If you guys get in over your head feel free not to call for help!

Anonymous said...

anonymous at 10:35 said: "I figure I'm not the only person at TYC who's struggling right now. :("

Trust're not. I am surrounded by people feeling exactly like that, like all I've done for 5/10/15 years is come to work every day and done a damn good job and been proud to tell people where I worked. And despite some other comments, a LOT of those people ARE in central office. I can't even imagine what it's like in the field.

This is now a witch hunt, and a broad trashing of everybody that works at TYC. Austin is bad do you deal with that when you are living in one of these small communities where the facilities are??

Madden seems like a good guy, sincere in his efforts, and I know when he visited facilities last year, he was very moved and concerned for both staff and students alike. I believe his intentions are good.

Whitmire, however...said point blank today that he "didn't want to hear about the good staff are doing" when the UTMB rep tried to point out that a lot of people working at TYC do a lot of good. He's on a crusade at this point, and will not be stopped.

Meanwhile, people WHO HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS MESS are leaving their jobs, having nervous breakdowns, and being treated like criminals for simply coming to work.

There are lots of victims in this horror story, and they are not all juvenile delinquents. But that's obviously not the story anybody wants to hear. Bollocks.

Anonymous said...

Please bring back Steve Robinson and Sandy Burnam! I knew when those two left, no one would ever fill their shoes. If Gov. Perry ever were to appoint a commissioner, I would suggest either of these two. Or ever better yet, bring back Ron Jackson!! They knew how to build and maintain relationships with both state leadership and their subordinates. I actually don't think we'd be where we are if those three were around! We miss them terribly. Even though Sandy was rather direct, she was a true leader and I mean a leader like no other. Pointing and waiving that finger and all.... :0 makes you go ooohhhh!

Anonymous said...

NO! NO! NO! NO! A THOUSAND TIMES NO! Do NOT encourage the return of ANY past TYC officials in Central Office. Do you think this travesty was created overnight or within the past couple of years? If you think this is just a "current problem with the current administration"- you are kidding yourself. THIS SYSTEM HAS BEEN SET UP THE WAY IT IS BY THE FOUNDERS OF THE PAST. YOU CANNOT FIX THE FUTURE BY RELYING ON THE PAST THAT NEVER WORKED AND LED THE AGENCY TO WHERE IT IS TODAY. NEW PEOPLE, NEW START.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right about not bringing back the "old guard" at TYC, i.e. Ron Jackson, Steve Robinson, and thier ilk. This situtuation didn't just happen suddenly; it's been festering for a long time, because of faulty policies , hiring, and lax oversight. TYC used to, and probably still is, run by the "good old boy system." Many of these "good old boys" were not very smart about to deal with psychological problems of troubled youth. But they were good at taking care of each other, and making things look good. We can do better, just keep turning over the rocks. Then we should start cleaning up the adult system.