Monday, January 01, 2018

Texas getting better at identifying problems at juvie facilities, but not fixing them

In reaction to revelations of dysfunctional youth prisons, advocates including your correspondent have been calling to dismantle them and shift to smaller facilities located closer to the urban areas from which most of the youth first came. (Check out Grits' interview with former Dallas News reporter Brandi Grissom on the topic.) I still think that's a good idea.

But we must then pay closer attention to how locals are treating juvenile offenders under their care. For example, inmates at one secure youth-treatment center in Dallas may go months without being allowed to exercise outside. Here's the lede to the Dallas News article breaking the story:

Unused basketball courts at the Lyle B. Medlock
Youth Treatment Center in South Dallas
Death row inmates in Texas are given at least an hour a week outdoors. Hardened criminals inside California's famous San Quentin prison get 10 hours.

Yet kids at a Dallas County correctional center for boys went months, sometimes more than a year, without going outdoors more than a few times.

For years, the boys at the Lyle B. Medlock Youth Treatment Center in southern Dallas County were rarely allowed outdoors, according to former guards, probation officers and families of incarcerated teens.

One boy said he was locked up for nearly 10 months and wasn't let outside for exercise once.
That we even know about this is a testament to the creation of the Independent Ombudsman at TJJD as part of the 2007 reforms, and the expansion of their authority to include local facilities. They began inspecting local juvenile detention facilities in 2015 and immediately identified the issue, reported the DMN. By May 2016, "During a third ombudsman visit, in May 2016, the inspector again noted the lack of outdoor time and submitted a 'Request for Plan of Action' to Dallas County juvenile officials: 'What plan can be developed and implemented at Medlock that would ensure youth have access to outdoor recreational areas?'"

So the mechanism to identify the problem worked, but the Ombudsman was not empowered to enforce her request to create an action plan for changing a bad policy. That didn't happen until the County Judge saw the Morning News article and sent the juvenile probation director a Nastygram, after which the policy was immediately changed.

Ideally, you want government structures that identify problems in order to fix them, not to allow them to linger until some reporter catches on and embarrasses the government into changing bad policies. This reminds me of Austin's police monitor, which at its best made important recommendations for reform but had no authority to fix the problems they'd identified.

At a minimum, when the Independent Ombudsman recommends this sort of policy change, local officials should be required to either implement the recommendation or formally reply to explain why they won't.

The TJJD Ombudsman had similarly identified most of the problems the Dallas Morning News reported on as Brandi Grissom was on her way out the door (check out Grits' interview with her; this was Brandi's final story as Austin bureau chief). So they're giving government officials an opportunity to rectify problems long before they become front-page news, but it's just not happening.

Which leads Grits to this conclusion: Legislators were successful in 2007 at creating a mechanism to identify problems at state and local facilities. But waiting until already-identified problems mushroom into front-page scandals and crises makes little sense. Someone must be empowered to fix identified problems, and to force local actors to adjust bad practices when they persist in the face of Ombudsman recommendations.


Anonymous said...

Good for the ombudsman for identifying this problem. But I'm still not sure what legislative policy makers expect to happen if they just keep pushing hardcore juvenile offenders back onto the counties--with or without state funding. While there may be some merit to relocating juvenile incarceration facilities to areas where there are greater resources and more expertise available to manage these exceptionally challenging offenders; the more decentralized juvenile incarceration options become, the greater the likelihood of "foxes" winding up guarding the henhouse. Like it or not, just as is the case with the adult correctional system, the state is the entity best positioned to ensure that correctional best practices are followed and civil rights respected.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The problem with that, 5:39, is that we heard the EXACT same thing when TYC was at 5,000 youth and they proposed decarcerating to current 1,000-ish levels. Counties can't handle it, crime will skyrocket, etc.. Except they could handle it, and juvenile crime plummeted. So when people have said what you're saying in the past, especially when they do so anonymously so they can't be held accountable for overstatements, the predictions never came to pass. And the situation for youth improved. Plus, the foxes are guarding the henhouse at the large facilities, and best practices that you say you want followed require smaller facilities in urban areas, etc.. So given that history and context, it's hard to take your complaint at face value, for me, anyway.

Anonymous said...

For TJJD to become functional, major changes at the executive leadership level must be implemented. The foxes are, indeed, guarding the henhouse. The same managers that are running state facilities are responsible for managing the county facilities.

Anonymous said...

It seems like there needs to be a completely independent arm to audit and investigate state and county agencies.

I recall a few years ago a Brazos County juvenile probation officer was accused of having sex with probationers, driving them in county vehicles and buying them things on a county credit card. She resigned which took her out of jurisdiction of the agency and no investigation went forward. She then was hired by adult probation in the same county. Her husband to his credit divorced her.

So long as state employees can hide behind an administrative illusion of due diligence the Foxes will always be guarding the hens. What we need are fox hunters.

drewwilley said...

As I read "Texas Tough" I quickly realize how every reform effort started with mere investigations and then puttered out because the legislature's appetite for reform was quenched after spending a ton of money to just know what they already did - that the system of oppression does nothing but just that - oppress. How in the world does Texas keep repeating this mistake and merely calling for investigations?! We have to actually DO something. History has shown time and time and time and time again that cages don't and won't help and those "foxes" will never act justly when given the keys to abuse the hens. Thank you for this article. Texas leg should stop nay kind of investigations, operate assuming that things are unjust, and spend its money helping people. For a state so allegedly reliant on its faith, they sure act without much faith that actually doing something and helping people in our system will work, even with the mountains of historical and statistical data that screams rehabilitation help should be the only goal.

Anonymous said...

TO 9:13AM

Interesting how "TYC" incidents continue to come out into the public light and seldom is there ever an allegation like the one you are reporting being lodged against a locally controlled facility? For years now it would appear that locally controlled facilities operate with a higher level of integrity. So why not fund them to oversee their youth who would otherwise be sent to a state facility? Seems there would be potential for cost savings and improved outcomes by keeping these youth in facilities where they will transition back into their communities or appear before the courts to face sentencing as an adult?

Anonymous said...

The ombudsman actually does a great job in county operated post facilities also and credit to them is due. Concerning is the fact that discussion is held regarding juveniles remaining in the county jurisdiction. Judges in those same counties have committed kids to TJJD to get them out of the community for various reasons, public safety is the one that is foremost on my mind. For a small community, that could become a issue. Statistics show keeping them in county operated programs shows slightly better results than commitment to state facilities but the recidivism numbers are on the rise along with the number of bad kids kept in the programs. Smaller regional facilities will end up becoming a lot more costly when you start trying to reach deep east Texas, Panhandle and West Texas and south central areas. Same issues with where they are currently located, small employment base.
Let the new TJJD Executive Director start soon and see what backing the legislature will give her to make very needed changes.

d said...

Great coverage @grits! Couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

If you’d like to see an example of how ignorant and clueless TJJD employees can be, google the YouTube video Giddings Texas State School and State Police. The video is 22 min long. You will see staff members leaving the TJJD Giddings facility in their vehicles and running a stop sign. Additionally, you will see two clueless TJJD State Police Officers questioning the reporter that’s filming the video. The State Police Officers, whose job is to investigate crimes within TJJD facilities, fail to realize TJJD employees are running the stop sign only a few feet from where they are standing. Talking about the blind leading the blind.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting YouTube video showing the staff of Giddings Texas State School violating the law.

See it at:

What is the implication of this reporter's story? Just because none of these state employees obey the stop sign does that mean that they violate other laws? Could it be that they obey all the laws inside the fence (at work) but only violate this one law? Does that make sense?

From the video I didn't know what paper or outfit he works for. Interesting what you learn when you film for 22 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Yes 8:00, at TJJD "...major changes at the executive leadership level must be implemented."

Since the old TYC culture is so persistent and ingrained one could be forgiven if they thought it was in their DNA. Some of those old dogs aint goin' to change for nothin'.

Anonymous said...

14:00 P.M. The video is troubling. The employees that are running the stop sign demonstrate contempt for the law. State Police that are expected to enforce the law within the unit and facility grounds appear to be confused regarding state and constitutional law. One could conclude that it’s probably unsafe on the other side of that fence.

Anonymous said...

WHAT A WASTE OF TIME!!!! The video is nothing more than someone who thinks they are creating a sensationalized story being a jerk-off.

Anonymous said...

Someone should an open records request on what happens in county facilities. It definitely won’t reveal that they are run with a higher level of integrity. The OIO selects documents to be released to the press at Senator Whitmires instruction. No report has never been released on Harris county and you can believe those facilities aren’t stellar. What IS interesting is that she has only released reports on facilities in state AND county facilities with African Americans in the leadership role. Seems like much more than coincidence.

Anonymous said...

800 am. County facilities are managed by county employees and their county juvenile board. Some TJJD staff monitor the counties compliance with standards. The managers in state side facilities have no responsibilities or influence in county operations. Check your facts!

Anonymous said...

02:37:00 PM The ultimate authority is the Executive Management team in TJJD Central Office. The foxes are guarding the henhouse.

Anonymous said...

10:47 you evidently have absolutely NO CLUE how county departments are operated. The juvenile boards have the ultimate authority. TJJD may be a rule-making body but they cannot and don't tell COUNTY operated facilities how to operate. Get YOUR facts straight.