Thursday, September 13, 2007

Blue Ribbon Panel: TYC "punishment" culture encourages pepper spray abuses

The "Blue Ribbon Panel" on reforming the Texas Youth Commission finally produced its long-awaited report, says the Austin Statesman, and it's highly critical of the agency's new pepper spray policies. Here are the recommendations, and I'll try to get a copy of the full report soon to analyze more thoroughly - it's not yet on TYC's website. Reported Mike Ward:

Youth Commission officials in early August approved using pepper spray before physical restraints to subdue juveniles. At the time, and at a subsequent legislative hearing, officials insisted that unnamed national juvenile corrections experts were split on its expanded use.

The report indicates otherwise.

"This task force unequivocally expresses its concern about TYC's new policy allowing the use of chemical control agents such as pepper spray," the report states.

"We understand that the new policy regarding pepper spray was implemented in an effort to decrease injuries to staff and juveniles, however, the ease with which pepper spray can be employed is extremely troubling. This is especially true in an environment that has not yet seen a shift in culture away from punishment and towards a treatment approach."

Though pepper spray could be best in dealing with some crisis situations, the report states, "it is all too easy to employ this technique in dealing with recalcitrant youth who refuse to obey an order or in an effort to extract a juvenile from his or her cell."

The report suggests other options for curbing injuries. It notes that living units of 50 youths or fewer have proved successful in other states. Most of Texas' state-run lockups hold 200 youths or more in living areas larger than that.

In the weeks since the pepper spray policy took effect, Youth Commission officials have reported that injuries to staff and youths have decreased. But a series of pepper-spraying incidents has led to criticism from some lawmakers, advocacy groups and relatives.

In an August incident at the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, a lockup that houses mentally troubled youths, at least one youth was hospitalized with what might have been an allergic reaction after being sprayed.

The use of Mace and other chemical agents except to contain riots was prohibited in the settlement two decades ago of a federal court lawsuit over conditions in Youth Commission lockups. Critics have said the new policy violates that order, an assertion repeatedly denied by current agency officials.

I heard the Panel's report was completed a month ago, but TYC administration disagreed with portions of it and were trying to negotiate parts of its contents. That makes me wonder what the original report said, since this one flat out contradicts TYC's representations to the Lege, including that some juvenile justice experts supported more widespread pepper spray use.

What are the options for reducing violence at facilities sans pepper spray? The Blue Ribbon Panel said smaller facilities, higher staffing ratios and better training would be a better approach. I agree, but legislators appear willing to stick with the status quo and use OC spray to keep the peace. Rep. Jerry Madden says proposals for smaller facilities don't have political support and also backed TYC's pepper spray policy.

One wonders why they convened the Blue Ribbon Panel and put off so many initiatives waiting for its input if they weren't going to take its recommendations?

The decision to expand pepper spray use may give staff some short-term respite, but creates a mere illusion of control that can only be sustained through staff intimidation toward youth. At the end of the day, that creates an environment that's anathema to rehabilitation goals. I'll leave the final observations on that subject to a regular Grits commenter and TYC field staffer, who goes by the nom de plume "Old Salty." Salty left this noteworthy comment on a post about pepper spray use and how to best maintain control of youth that deserves readers attention:
there are some occasions when using pepper spray is appropriate. Unfortunately, I have seen it used too much as a crutch. ...

The over crowding, 96 bed open bay dorms, cutting back on resources to save money - they have all contributed to the mess we are in today. We also lost a great deal under the leadership of Chester Clay and the "get tough" bunch. Staff who had great skills at de-escalating were called cowards and were run off. Control by intimidation became the rule. Someone here keeps posting the mantra, "Control is an illusion." That is absolutely true when you try to achieve control through intimidation.

Staff who can hold firm, fair and consistent limits on kids, who confront them politely, but firmly, and who follow up with appropriate consequences when the youth do not comply, and recognition and reward when they do comply, tend to maintain control.

We are the adults. We have more control over their lives than we realize. Try something, as an experiment, if you do not believe me - when everything is loud and disruptive, make a point of addressing them at a lower volume. You will probably be surprised at the reaction you get. I've been doing it for years, and 95% of the time they quiet down because they want to hear what I am saying. They are used to staff yelling back at them, they are taken aback when a staff stands in the midst of them and calmly and without showing either fear or aggression, begins addressing them.

I am not afraid to get physical with youth - I have been involved in literally hundreds of restraints over my career. But, 95% or more of them were cases where I went to the aid of someone who had already initiated the restraint. I'd estimate that at least 80% of those restraints could have been avoided. The point is, that too many staff (especially males) feel that they have to prove themselves. You don't have to prove yourself to anybody.

Right now, my biggest concern is that there have been so many conflicting directives coming out of Central Office, that staff do not know what to do. The youth sense the uncertainty and are taking advantage. The predators are terrorizing both other youth and the staff. Kids tell me constantly that they do not feel safe. They want staff to reestablish control.

In conclusion, we, the adults, need to lead. We need to walk the walk. Don't expect much from Central Office, but don't make that an excuse for not doing your best to lead these kids. Don't let the kids gain the upper hand by letting them succeed in pushing your hot buttons.

I have never resorted to the use of pepper spray to get control, but, I have been mightily pissed off when I have been caught in the cross spray of a panicked staff.

I learned an important lesson from an experienced YAS IV early in my career. A kid had been told by staff to go to his room. The kid instead went over to the YAS IV and tried to address him. The YAS IV remained expressionless as he said, "You were told to go to your room." The kid persisted, and each time the YAS IV responded impassively the same way. Finally, after about 5 or six rounds of this, the kid said, "Fxxx you," and went to his room. About 5 minutes later, the YAS IV went to the kid's room and asked him, "Now, what was it you wanted to ask me?" He had control.


anon said...

Something off topic here, but I think it's something you might like to know.

A few months ago, TYC implemented a hurricane evacuation plan to be put in place whenever a hurricane threatened any of the units along the coast. Last month or so, they had a fire drill of sorts when they thought the Beamont unit was going to be hit. Staff was put on standby, and plans were made to evacuate the unti and all associated important items and documents.

About 2am this morning, HURRICANE HUMBERTO struck the upper Texas coast with 85 mph winds. The eye of the storm came DEAD CENTER over the Beaumont unit. As of 8:15am this morning, there was no evacuation, no employees were forwarned of anything, and nobody at the unit can be reached by telephone. Entergy, the local power company, says it estimates that over 75,000 households are without power, and it could be days before it is restored.

Way to go, TYC.

Anonymous said...

You know I missed that post by Old Salty.

I knew he/she had many great ideas but I am glad to know there are TYC staff with similar philosphies. Maybe we both started at Brownwood and worked with similar people. Self control, thinking, patience and a quiet voice win out over yelling and brute force any day!

I was mentored (mainly by YAS II's) in those philosophies by some great staff. When I began on the 2-10 shift they we would always sit down for a few minutes and decompress. It was the Wanda Drew's, Jean Tomlinson's, Daniel Hume's, and the "T" Thomas Brown's (brownwood) who took a wet behind the ears staff an taught him the ropes. They always listened offered adviced, sometimes cajoled, but never critized. Thanks! Can't forget Dave Morrison, either!

As TYC grew much of the mentoring and shared voices of experience were drowned out by quick expansion and the change in TYC philosophy. TYC needs to find the seasoned staff and document what makes them successful. Tyc should complile and use examples like old salty provided with the YAS IV(now equivalent to JCO VI).

Anonymous said...

I too worked at Brownwood many years ago and remembered we had what was called free-time for the youth and groups actually listened to kids and problems were resolved. Well people did not like the term free-time so we came up with a 16 hour scheduled that was rigid and if you did not stay on this schedule you would be punished.

As you can see now what we put in place back in 1993/1994 did not work and we still have not figured this out. The behavior groups today are held regardless even when there are no problems to discuss, and they are so rigid that youth and staff cannot express themselves. It is scripted and rehearsed to the point that the youth get nothing out of this but for the sake of consistency we march forward with this plan. Some of the programing we had back then was not good but some of it was good, we need to look back and learn from our mistakes.

Anonymous said...

No, I did not get my start in Brownwood. I did know Jean Tomlinson though, and she had a good heart for how to manage kids. She was one of the ones run off by Lydia Barnard. BTW, I am male, and I have to admit, I did join the Marines in my youth in order to prove myself. I learned a few things about myself through that experience. (I also learned a thing or two about leadership from some of the superb leaders I served with and under.)

There are still a lot of folks in the JCO ranks who know how to work with kids. We need to get back to recognizing and rewarding them for their skills and dedication. We also need to encourage them to mentor the new staff. (I was a brand-new Caseworker when I witnessed that YAS IV handle that kid so well.) Unfortunately, many of those former YAS IVs/JCO VIs were demoted or run off because their skills were not respected. Those that are still around need to be brought back up and put back in charge on the dorms.

I think the current unrest on the campuses is partly a result of us "reaping the whirlwind" after all those years of control by intimidation. It is going to take a lot of hard work to get things back to where they need to be.

The bottom line is this: sooner or later these kids are going to be back outside the gate. We need to be very conscious of what we do to them while they are inside the gate. Semper Fi! Old Salty

Anonymous said...

typical of Pope. You don't know how to do something legally, so you just do it the TDCJ way.

Anonymous said...

My favorite part of the Statemsan article is toward the end, where Rep Madden dismisses the recommendation for smaller, regional facilities as "politically impractical."

Surely we can do better than that.

Bill Bush

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No kidding, Bill! This spring, to hear the legislators, anything was possible, sweeping reforms were inevitable.

Now nothing is possible, apparently, and all the problems described this spring don't matter anymore. That was a really quick turnaround!

I wonder if Jim McReynolds will cry again?

Anonymous said...

'Ol Salty is right on. What a great philosophy, and it works better than any other method. Be firm, fair, and consistent. It's not science Mr. Whitmire and Mr. Madden.

Anonymous said...


Obviously those were straight up crocodile tears.

Bill Bush

Anonymous said...

Don't you all get it? There is nothing more needs to be done. They already declared that they fixed TYC. Case closed. What is the matter with you people? Isn't it obvious that they fixed TYC?

Anonymous said...

And BUSH has won the war on Terror!

Anonymous said...


Go to the Statesman page.

Texas Appleseed has filed suit in federal court vs TYC's pepper spray policy.

And the Blue Ribbon report in full is now up on the site.

Bill Bush

Rio Grande said...

The biggest abuse to the kids is an atmosphere of Lax discipline.

That is the direction the facilities are moving in now.

The toughest and most ruthless of the kids start to run the place and that puts the majority in a one down position.

Anonymous said...

The original purpose of the Blue Ribbon Panel was to develop a replacement for Resocialization, not redesign the juvenile justice system. That purpose was forgotten along the way and there is no new treatment program. It is nice that the Panel has recommendations for the juvenile justice system but TYC still needs a replacement for Resocialization and that is something that they could have done without proposing facility size redesigns costing hundreds of millions of dollars and requiring years of construction and authorization from a legislature that does not meet for well over a year from now. The youth need treatment now, not a decade in the future.

Howard A. Hickman

Anonymous said...


I haven't read the full report yet, but my understanding was that the most cutting-edge rehab programs, such as the much touted Missouri model, called for exactly the kind of smaller regional facilities as noted in the Blue Ribbon report.

In other words, it may well be that the panel didn't exceed its mandate with this recommendation. Smaller facilities may be part of its preferred rehab program. Until I read it (tonight), I won't know for sure, but this is my guess going in.

Where the report may well have fallen short is in offering an immediate, short-term program for TYC while it moved toward a new model.

It's hard to say until I read it... in a couple of hours.

Bill Bush

Anonymous said...


My preferred system would be something other than TYC as it exists now, but the bottom line is always money. Smaller facilities is a solution that requires lots of money, the overcoming of local opposition to facility placement, and probably a decade of time.

TYC was supposed to get from the Blue Ribbon Panel a new treatment program to implement immediately to replace Resocialization. That was how the expense of the Panel was sold to TYC. I am not sure TYC got what it paid for.

Howard A. Hickman

Anonymous said...

We do need smaller facilities. The current facilities far outstrip the hiring bases in the areas they are located. It is not an urban-rural issue. Adding 500 JCO positions will not help when we cannot fill the positions we had before SB103. Resocialization did not work because we tried to do it on the cheap. The panel called for a cognitive-behavioral therapy approach to rehabilitation. Guess what? That is exactly what Resocialization is.

I agree with those critics of Resocialization who said it was too complicated - written by PhDs for JCOs with GEDs. They do need to break it down and simplify it.

I cannot think of any current location in which TYC has an institution, including those three that are near urban areas, that will be able to adequately staff the facility with the bodies needed, let alone qualified bodies.

Perhaps, the exception is Brownwood, since by limiting their population to just girls, they reduced the population by over one half.

Howard, I know you, and I respect you, but on this one you are off-base. Old Salty

Anonymous said...

8:19 a.m. you might check to see if the indians haven't tied the chief up and scalped him!

Anonymous said...


I totally agree with you about the obstacles to smaller facilities. I'd add that rural areas have traditionally held on tightly to the employment these facilities offer.

They are the same reasons that very similar recommendations for smaller facilities located near urban areas were ignored in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Recently I was re-reading a 1947 report given to the committee that invented TYC by an expert from the U.S. Children's Bureau and the U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, who visited Texas' juvenile facilities several times in the post-World War 2 period.

His recommendations to the founders of TYC were nearly identical in many key respects to those just given by the Blue Ribbon report.

For instance, he called for facilities housing no more than 50 - 150 youth, located near urban areas, with varying degrees of security, up to and including high security for the more serious offenders.

He suggested an active effort to include families in the rehab process, observing that rehabilitating the families was just as important as rehabbing the kids b/c they were going to go home someday. Understand that these were very cutting-edge ideas in 1947. Are they still now?

Here is a long quote from the 1949 report of the Texas Training School Code Commission, heavily influenced by such expert advice:

"The Commission wishes to emphasize that maintenance of discipline in a mass-custody institution, with untrained personnel, presents an insoluble problem. Because it is a mass-custody institution, combining the dangerous with the trustworthy, the first responsibility of the institution becomes custody. It must prevent the dangerous from running away. It thus forces the entire staff to be first of all guards, and it divides the population inevitably into the watchers and the watched. Life becomes an endless series of countings, of unlocking and relocking doors, of forming lines to go to classes, to work, to eat, to play. As always under repression, the human spirit rebels, plots endlessly to escape. In turn, the administration introduces more ‘discipline,’ and this degenerates sooner or later into brutality."

A few years later, one of the earliest TYC budget requests attempted to implement this idea. TYC proposed to break up the massive Gatesville boys' training school into 4 smaller facilities. (One of them was to be a Jim Crow facility for black youth, with no basis in age, offense, or needs, so it was far from what we would view as completely progressive).

The lege refused to fund it. However, within a decade, the lege eagerly appropriated huge sums, far more than had been requested earlier, to build more large institutions. (See my Mountain View post here at Grits for more).

My point isn't to lecture anyone or to wag my self-righteous finger but to note that none of these ideas are new by any stretch. We have known for a very long time what ought to be done. But, as Rep Madden admitted today, it is "politically impractical" to do so. Same story, different year, from my POV.

Barring a sudden display of political courage from the lege, or some movement from the courts, I'm very pessimistic that TYC will do anything other than simply repeat the same tired old cycle of scandal and "reform" that it nearly broke out of with the Morales settlement.

On another note: Old Salty, I'd really like to learn more about your experiences. If you're interested, contact me at

Bill Bush

Anonymous said...

I just read the majority of the blue ribbon report. How much of the taxpayer's money was spent on a nice research paper that just restated what we already knew? They were supposed to come up with a treatment program we could use to replace Resocialization, but all they came up with is more feculance of male bovine.

Anonymous said...

Old Salty,

I am not sure what I am off base on. Smaller facilities is something that can not even be started until the next legislative session and will require a number of years thereafter to accomplish. My point is that it is not the solution for the next two years because it can not be funded under TYC's current appropriation. TYC's appropriation for new facilities is to build one near a major metropolitain area. TYC does not have the authority to split that money up for multiple facilities. Even under the best of circumstances 200 plus kid facilities are the only thing that will exist in TYC for the next four or five years. So the temporary solution needs to operate within those parameters.

Howard A. Hickman

Anonymous said...

Please! I don't mean to be critical, but "cannot" is one word. For some reason, it is driving me nuts seeing it repeatedly written as two words. Of course, being a TYC teacher means you have to be nuts, anyway.

I agree that we need smaller facilities and more personalized care/treatment/education for our youth, but politically and financially, it doesn't appear to realistic.

I have tried the low voice thing with my students -- one or two may "hear" but the others are too busy disrupting for the most part. Now, I just document and refer. It's the only way to facilitate a kid's education if he or she is so inclined. I will admit that it breaks my heart at times to have to be so hard-nosed about discipline (NOT control), but those who wish to learn are entitled, and those who have no desire don't need to be there anyway!

Anonymous said...

Oops! Here I am correcting others and I put the word "to" in front of realistic. It should not have been there! Oh, well, I can't even think of the proper adjective to describe the way the kids behaved today.

Anonymous said...

I can talk all day about the causes of our current situation, but I'll be damned if I can come up with a workable short-term solution. Howard, I know what the lege funded, but I don't see a unit in either Houston or the Metroplex happening. NIMN will come into play. That is what happened when TYC closed Richmond house. Whitmire and the Harris county contingent in the lege insisted that another half-way house be built in Harris county. Unfortunately, none of the locals wanted it in their wards. If you listened closely to the side comments between Madden and Whitmire at the latest dog and pony show, Madden appears to be ragging Whitmire about that very thing, and Whitmire basically called the Harris County officials a bunch of dummies. (Not in so many words, but that was the gist of it.) Old Salty

Anonymous said...

Old Salty,

I do not disagree that a new unit will not be built near Houston or the Metroplex. It is just that money can not be spent elsewhere. (On "can not", my teachers would disagree with 7:53 since they considered "cannot" an improper colloquialism preferring the original English expression "can not" rather than the lazy "cannot" since the original expression was two separate words.)

Howard A. Hickman

Anonymous said...

"Can't" may be one word. A contraction of two words, "can not."

Anonymous said...

CAN'T we get away from the English lessons and back to Juvenile Justice?

Anonymous said...

Howard, I think we may be arguing the same point from different angles. My point is that the lege was wrong. The law they passed needs to be amended. Large institutions near metropolitan areas is not the answer. Every time we have tried that it has resulted in disaster. Mart and Marlin are near Waco. Hamilton was in Bryan. Al Price is in Beaumont. Crockett is rural, and worked well before it expanded. Same with Corsicana and West Texas. The lege was focused on rural vs urban. That makes good press copy, but it does nothing to address the realities. Since I do not believe the political pressure exists to force the governor to call the lege back in session to amend the law, I think the only answer may be to have the courts mandate the necessary changes. I really think that is our only hope. Since I do not believe the current administration, (given the role of Bush as governor in all this) will bring the issue, our only hope is in suits being brought by private groups or individuals. As a lawyer, maybe you could help with that. Old Salty

Anonymous said...

Have you ever thought about being the executive director for tyc?

also, for the teacher, notice how i am too lazy to use caps?

can not can not can not.

just playing, for the first time in a long time i had a nice laugh