Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dr. Bill Bush: TYC and the Lessons of Mountain View

Next up in Grits' continuing series of guest bloggers on Texas juvenile justice topics is Dr. Bill Bush, a juvenile justice historian from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who's just now completing a history of the Texas Youth Commission. I appreciate him taking time out to contribute this post:

On Wednesday, a joint House-Senate committee of the Texas Legislature will meet to re-evaluate changes at TYC. By most accounts, those changes have done little to respond to the long-term problems that led to the sexual abuse scandal which ignited recent events. In fact, the official response to problems clearly caused by prison-like features has been to move even further in the direction of making TYC more like TDCJ – precisely the opposite of what’s needed, in light of TYC’s history.

The state of Texas has forgotten the lessons of the past when it comes to large, maximum-security facilities for juvenile offenders. Let’s take one case in point: The Mountain View School for Boys, built in 1962 amid a furor over violent juveniles that would seem familiar to readers who lived through the 1990s. This was the facility reserved for older, “violent and serious” offenders who existed, in TYC director James Turman’s words, “in the twilight zone between adolescence and adulthood.” Here is a photograph of Mountain View’s exterior from the archives of the Texas State Library:

When the Morales case began in 1971, by far the worst abuses surfaced at Mountain View. FBI agents, acting under orders from the Department of Justice, which had signed on as a plaintiff in the case, discovered that guards had been spraying inmates at close range with Mace, a chemical spray that began being manufactured in the 1960s. At least one boy, nicknamed “Tweetybird” by the guards (who routinely “diagnosed” inmates as homosexual) was sprayed so many times that huge patches of his skin peeled off.

One of the most damning indictments of Mountain View appeared in an expert report, given to the court in 1972 by Howard Ohmart, a consultant with the American Justice Institute who had evaluated over twenty prisons, including Angola State Prison in Louisiana. Ohmart described Mountain View overall as “punitive, regimented, and oppressive.” Guards wore “police-type uniforms” that, in Ohmart’s estimation, discouraged the ability of staff to function as “substitute parents,” as TYC claimed they did. Epitomizing Mountain View’s worst qualities was its “Security Treatment Center,” reserved for rulebreakers. Here boys lived in isolation cells and worked on a “punitive work squad.” Quoting Ohmart:

“As we approached the work squad the nine coverall-clad figures (with the ‘security’ emblem emblazoned on the back) were seated on the ground taking the carefully timed ‘break.’ Elbows on knees, head between hands, they sat staring at the ground, forbidden to either talk or look at each other. Shortly after our arrival, one of the two supervising officers gave the work signal and without a word the group arose, still in line and started swinging their heavy hoes. The hoe comes high overhead and chops into the earth, in a pointless and completely unproductive exercise. Three or four swings and the line moves forward in unison, wordless, and with faces in a fixed, blank expressionless mask…”

Ohmart then observed the boys eating lunch, in total silence, heads bowed down, on the floor of their isolation cells. Ultimately, he concluded, “we have never seen anything quite as depressing, or anything that seemed so deliberately designed to humiliate, to degrade and debase. It is surely oppression in its simplest and most direct form.”

Two copies of this report are in the Texas State Library, one of which belonged to TYC director James Turman. His copy is covered in angry margin notes that argue with nearly every statement in this sixty-page report. Next to the paragraph quoted above, Turman wrote “This is called discipline.” Next to Ohmart’s criticism of the staff uniforms, Turman wrote “The students in our schools have learned that clothes do not make a man.” In many places he retorted “stupid” or “false.”

Judge William Wayne Justice disagreed with Turman, and ordered that Mountain View be closed down immediately. He concurred with Ohmart’s belief that “the oppressive character of the place” was by design “when the program was created over a decade ago and has been carefully nurtured ever since by its designer.” The consensus view then was that large institutions inherently bred abuses, that even good people could overlook, enable, or rationalize practices that would be deemed unacceptable elsewhere. While some TYC staff blew the whistle and testified against the administration in Morales, many others seemed to be either unaware or unconcerned about abuses.

In the 1990s, motivated by a new rash of violent juvenile offenders, the state forgot the lessons of Mountain View and rushed to build more institutions. This in turn helped enable abuses of juveniles. Now, instead of moving quickly and deliberately away from large institutions, the state has chosen to compound the error, by embracing a conservator’s report that stresses security and surveillance (including staff uniforms, denounced in the 70s), by placing prison officials in charge who seem inclined to turn back the clock at TYC. This week, the legislature cannot afford to settle for another quick fix.

See also Grits' pre-hearing coverage and these recent guest columns about the Texas Youth Commission:


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this informative review. It should be required reading for all new TYC employees, especially the ones that have come over from TDCJ.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I think folks are forgetting the difference between a misdemeanor or non-determinate youth and a convicted sentenced offender with a specific amount of time to do. Sentenced youth are some of the worst of the worst -- I thought the lege was trying to reduce the pop of TYC (misdemeanor and non-det youth) in order to be able to deal with the worst. Instead, TYC makes it about releasing the worst of the worst and keeping kids who have no business there in the first place (thank your local judge for that). Things are bad -- and CO executive is the main part of the problem. Just don't forget sentenced youth are a whole different breed -- that don't necessarily need a substitute parent. Lots of those youth will be going to adult prison -- the judge sentenced them with that in mind -- or they wouldn't have given them those kinds of sentences. PLEASE remember the difference in the kinds of kids we are talking about here.

Anonymous said...

Judges send sentenced offenders to TYC to be rehabilitated. If they had wanted a long prison sentence, they could have been certified as an adult.

Anonymous said...

Sorry 6:53, but Determinate Sentenced Offenders ARE cerified as adults; then tried (only adolescents tried as adults could be tranferred to TDCJ Instituions). They start at TYC for 2 reasons that I know of: too young to go to the pen; on the positive, a last chance to show they can turn their lives around and re-enter the community as functional adults. (the converse: it they can't demonstrate the ability to function, the pen looms large.

Anonymous said...

Hey I know a guy who used to be at Gatesville as a youth for what we now call UUMV, and is about 53-54 now. Emily might like this one.

You guys wanna know what it was like then? Here's a live example. Let me know Henson.

Anonymous said...

oh ps. he'll be in ATX next week visiting me (Sat. and Sun.) He has some stories of that place.

Anonymous said...

DSO's (Determinate Sentence Offenders) are not certified as adults. Those certified as adults do not go to TYC. They are convicted in criminal court and go to TDCJ - they are in the Young Offenders program there.

DSO's are tried in juvenile court and sent to TYC for rehabilitation. Depending on their behavior and progress at TYC, as well as the length of their sentence, they can be transferred to TDCJ through a transfer hearing in the juvenile court that originally sentenced them.

DSO is a way to give youth an opportunity to be rehabilitated and not sent to prison; certified as adult means they go straight to prison. They are two different things.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:40,

These are good points that I would have addressed in my original post but for space constraints. It was public outrage about the "worst of the worst" that led to Mountain View's construction in the first place.

In the years just before the lege authorized Mountain View, a rash of violent crimes involving juvenile parolees and escapees from Gatesville sparked much public anger.

One of them was a drive-by shooting in Houston's West University Place area, then an upscale neighborhood. Four parolees joyriding in a stolen car shot a 15 year old kid to death in his own driveway on Christmas night in 1957 for essentially no reason. They had never seen each other before.

Between 1959 and 1961 there were several mass escapes from Gatesville during which staff were assaulted badly by inmates. The last straw came in spring 1961, when a 43 year old guard (and ex-Marine) was beaten to death with a baseball bat by 4 escapees. Public anger, especially in Coryell County, ran extremely high.

While all this was happening, there was a push to lower the age at which a juvenile could be certified to criminal court. At the time it was 17, but some wanted it lowered to 15 (and others pushed for the juvenile death penalty). However, this movement failed and wouldn't be taken up again until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, TYC director Turman was able to convince the spendthrift lege to pony up about $2.5 million for the construction of Mountain View. It was to be the facility for precisely the violent offenders who had committed murder, assault, rape, etc.

I'll stop there but want to add that it is very hard to gauge whether these offenders were any less difficult than today's generation. They certainly didn't have easy access to semi-automatic firearms, but their culture did offer fantasy narratives of violence, revenge, and power, that resembled in some ways the gangsta rap of today. It is not an easy comparison.

I realize I haven't completely addressed your comments but hopefully this gives some useful backstory to my original post.

Bill Bush

Anonymous said...

sorry 8:04, looks like you are an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Is it really the general opinion of TYC staff that DSO's are the real trouble makers in TYC. Certainly there are a percentage who are quickly transferred to TDCJ, but the general/violent b/violent A types sure do seem to be more violent and cause more problems than the DSO's.

Anonymous said...

I would take all the DSO's any day. They are less prone to violence in comparison to your VIO-A's and B's. This is based upon the knowledge that if they choose not to work the program then TDCJ is an option. That being said maybe we should classify all youth as DSO's with this possibility?

Anonymous said...

Actually, the most troublesome youth tend to be the General Offenders. Dwight Harris tried to explain this to Senator Whitmire during the hearings in the valley, but Whitmire chose not to understand what Harris was trying to tell him and ended up ridiculing Harris. Whitmire couldn't seem to understand how youth classified as "non-violent" could actually be more violent than those classified as "violent offenders". Harris was not sufficiently eloquent to get through to the good Senator that the classifications of "violent" and "non-violent" are based upon the youth's classifying offense, not on their general behavior. Some of the better juvenile court judges tried to explain this as well, when complaining about not being able to send assautive youth to TYC under the new law, since assault is a misdemeanor. These judges were about as effective as Harris. Old Salty

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the entire Morales file should be required reading for the new employees. Many appear to believe it's no longer relevant to TYC - they say, "times have changed and so should the agency"...perhaps reading what the outrage was about then would help them understand what was about in February? Maybe some of them might also want to look up the word "juvenile" in the dictionary. Just a few random thoughts from a long-time employee who has read the case.

Anonymous said...

From 8:04 to 9:26 Salutation accepted. Might be why I still work for TYC.
9:02 Thanks for the correct information; I should have checked the assumption under which I was operating.

Anonymous said...

Old Salty,

Guess Dwight had a difficult time explaining to the Senators (who generally hear what they want to hear and follow their own agenda anyway) that TYC Classifications are just Labels (designated by the Lege) for the type offense a youth committed and NOT indicative or representative of their behavior.

Many VOA'S, VOB'S, and Sentenced Offenders can be first time offenders or have a relatively short offense history compared to many General Offenders. In old SJS terms they might be considered or similar to Selective Interventions or kids with generally prosocial value structures that have recently gone awry.

While many general offenders may have long misdemeanor or felony offenses that are not handled as harshly as Sex Offense, Armed Robbery, Attempted Murder, Deadly Conduct, etc...

Best kid I ever worked with was a VOA, never had a single incident report!

Anonymous said...

9:00 am - You are right, that is what Dwight tried to explain to them. (I can just imagine trying to explain the SJS to that bunch!) I listened to his testimony carefully, and I'm afraid he was terribly inarticulate. It was as if they had him completely intimidated. He was already beat down by that point, and I think he knew it.

Dwight was betrayed by people he trusted and he was slow to realize how they had been busy stabbing him the back. I think one of the most difficult tasks of any leader is to figure out whom to trust and whom not to trust. He should have known from their track records that Neil and Linda were telling him the truth.

What we don't know, is how much pressure the Governor put on him to protect Lydia. I guess there is lots of stuff we will never know.

What I do know is that the whole atmosphere in TYC changed with the advent of Chester Clay as Director of Juvenile Corrections. Management by fear and intimidation became the rule - both for staff and for youth. We are now paying the price. JCO staff were at the pointy end of the spear and felt it most acutely, but what they often didn't know was that their supervisors were being treated like crap as well.

I have always believed that most people want to do a good job, and that given the tools and the training, will do a good job. You then deal with the 5% or so that won't. Under the Clay administration, the theory was that most people are lazy, dishonest, incompetent and chicken, and should be treated as such. Look where that theory got us! The really sad thing about all this is that Linda & Neil and their folks were finally gaining the upper hand, and were turning things around. They forced Clay out and were starting to put good people in the right positions to make a difference. All that is gone now. It is so sad! Old Salty.

Anonymous said...

I was there at Terrace in the post Morales v. Turman years. Hung on the wall in CIC. Morales v. Turman made 'them' better at covering up their shit. I beat the system, I guess I wasnt the dumb ass state boy I was told. I was smart enough to get a BSEE from UTD. I haved help kids beat the system ever since. I learned it in Gatesville, its called the de-con tyc#47333

Anonymous said...

I saw your post on a page when I was searching tonight. I was in Gainesville a few years before Alicia Morales came on the scene. I am in touch with several girls that of course became very close friends. That's how we got by..each other. We were the little hippie girls that baffled TYC because we were bright middle to upper middle class white kids. They had no clue what to do with us. We spent any time we could together to try and make it through-cigg break-bowling-skating=the State of TX even bought me a guitar and our music teacher (the cruelest man I ever met-he had been in a nazi concentration camp for Gods sakes.) would take me off "campus" (ha!) to sing for churches and radio stations up in that barren part of Texas. I am a musician even after dealing with that Sadist!!! We would do ANYTHING to get out of there. Anyway..im going on and on....I had no idea about Alicia Morales-am sending the link tonight to my pals. Amazing...I wish I could thank her!!! The humiliation and anxiety they put us through everyday still haunts us..some more thn others. But several of my friends are truly scared from that place. the treatment and degradation of Gainesville is a nightmare. There is almost NOTHING about that place online. Like it never existed. Spooky. I mean there were 300 girls there when we were there. Thats a lot of tears. I'm 54 years old. I still search occasionally. Like tonight. I guess some things are hard to forget. Nice to meet you. Sarah Elizabeth Campbell myspace/sayraliz

josie said...


josie said...

My daddy was beaten very, very, badly at MT.View his name is Robert Daniel Walls Sr.
They stomped his teeth out and both of his eyes were swollen shut, i know he did something to get in there, but he didn't deserve that, i just wonder how those who did that to him are living today, and how they live with themselves after doing that to a kid?It is a shame i know that, and carma always comes sooner or later!!! Josie

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