Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Finally: TYC Blue Ribbon Panel Member Speaks

After months of waiting for a report from the "Blue Ribbon Panel" convened to recommend reforms at the Texas Youth Commission, finally we get a hint at their perspective, and it sounds like some of them don't approve of the direction the agency has taken. Panel member Barry Krisberg complained in Tuesday's Statesman ("For Youth's sake, change TYC policy," Aug. 28) that:
in just three short months, it appears that the reform effort has gone awry. Violence and under-staffing continue to plague Youth Commission, and no official treatment program has been implemented to replace the old curriculum. According to media reports, the primary response of new Youth Commission leaders has been to introduce the increased use of pepper spray and send a vague letter of warning to youths and their families as a way to stem institutional violence. The commission's response seemed incredible to me and certainly is not based on evidence of efficacy.

The decision to increase the use of tear gas and pepper spray is a particularly disturbing sign that Youth Commission officials have been misinformed in their attempts to "fix" the problems in the state's institutions. Though pepper spray has been viewed by some as a solution to violence in correctional facilities, it usually creates more problems than it solves. Staff come to rely on chemical agents in lieu of communicating with youngsters to defuse confrontational situations.

I have seen firsthand the kind of abuses that can result from use of pepper spray. In one case, youth correctional counselors responded to a mentally ill youth who was in the midst of attempting suicide by repeatedly spraying him with pepper spray before they removed the sheet wrapped around his neck. Introducing chemical agents as a primary way to reduce violence in juvenile facilities has never succeeded, and it is an invitation to abuse, staff and youth injuries, and costly litigation.

Good intentions aside, it is high time for Texans to make a decision about the direction in which the Youth Commission will move. Will Texas become a national model for juvenile corrections or continue to be a national disgrace? The Youth Commission must improve its staff-to-youth ratio, pay its staff members a living wage, increase quality training and develop a meaningful rehabilitative and academic program for incarcerated youth. State and agency leaders should embrace proven juvenile justice "best practices" and the recommendations of the best national and local experts. The Youth Commission must reinstitute a "culture of caring" for its most troubled young people. Anything less will lead Youth Commission right back into the "bad old days" that have embarrassed the Lone Star State before a worldwide audience.

Judging from Krisberg's column, if the Blue Ribbon Panel ever releases its final recommendations one suspects they will disapprove of many recent decisions by agency officials. I wish they'd hurry. Somebody needs to speak out who TYC administrators will listen to; right now they seem to be on their own, ill-conceived path.


Anonymous said...

Truthfully this is a Texan problem. I was born and raised in Texas. I love Texas. But I recognize that our culture here in the State of Texas is based on black and white thinking (as evidenced by George Bush's "you're either with us or against us" statement to the worldwide community that isolated the US from the support we needed to win the war on terrorism) and an irrational, hard-nosed approach to the law. Here in Texas we "shoot first and ask questions later" and we're darned proud of that philosophy.

Until Texans begin to understand this black and white way of approaching problems IS the problem, the children in TYC custody will continue to be mistreated. So many times since I accepted and resigned my job at TYC as a psychologist I've had a conversation with peers and family members about all the drama. Without fail, the conversation ends with a statement that goes something like this: "Well, I don't know what to do to fix the problem, but those kids need to have their heads bashed in for doing what they did to get put in prison."

The legislature and the officials "in charge" of TYC are just following the lead of the Citizens of Texas. WE are the ones who must change if we expect our laws to change.

Democracy was based on citizen participation, not arm-chair quarterbacking.

Anonymous said...

7:34. I think you hit the nail squarely on the head.

Anonymous said...

and apparently left them speechless. There is no retort. It is truth.

Anonymous said...

Might be true for TYC, but somebody needs to look at the TJPC system. One ot the most progressive models in the world, much less the nation. The Texas Juvenile Probation Commission does more, with less, than any governmental agency in the state. I encourage everyone to check it out. Were Juvenile Justice professionals consulted on TYC solutions? Yes! Were suggestions followed? NO! Waht we are going to have is a farm team for TDCJ. Period.

Anonymous said...

That shoot first, ask questions later mentality was essential for survival in pioneer times, but this is the 21st Century. The dinosaurs went extinct because they couldn't adapt. Let's not let this great state go the route of the dinosaurs.