Monday, March 12, 2018

TDCJ Youthful Offender Program accused of 'culture of cover-up'

Readers will recall that, after more staff-on-youth sex-assault scandals were uncovered at Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities, the new executive director immediately sought to certify 35 youthful offenders as adults and send them to TDCJ, even though staff, not inmates, had caused all the scandals that forced her predecessor's ouster.

So where did she want to send those 35 kids? To the Youthful Offender Program at TDCJ. And now Lauren McGaughy at the Dallas News - in a story called, "'Culture of Coverup': Warden forced to retire from prison where whistleblower says teen inmates abused" - has pulled back the curtain on how youth are treated there, thanks to the diligent reporting of misconduct, abuse, and neglect by a now retired program supervisor* who formerly worked there. Read the whole story, excerpts won't do it justice. TDCJ has fired the warden and moved the youth to a unit in Huntsville.

What does it say about the state's priorities that, rather than solve problems of violence and abuse by staff on youth inmates, the first big policy shift from the new TJJD leadership was to ship off 35 kids to another environment characterized by abuse, fear, and predatory staff?

What exactly are we solving for here? Is the goal to protect the kids or to generate a headline where pols and bureaucrats can say, "We're changing something in response, so everyone can move on. Problem solved." Except the change didn't correlate to the problem and may create even bigger problems for those 35 youth.

Everyone essentially knows what needs to be done. Grits has discussed the expert consensus on the topic before (see below), and an extensive recent blog post from Texans Care for Children elaborated even more.

Bottom line, we need to move away from large units sited in rural areas far away from services and youth inmates' families and adopt the same model Gov. Scott Walker has embraced for Wisconsin, creating smaller, treatment-oriented facilities closer to urban areas following what's known as the "Missouri model." That's the same recommendation made by a blue-ribbon panel convened by the Texas Legislature eleven years ago after another sex-abuse scandal at Texas youth prisons. The National Conference of State Legislators recently issued similar advice.

Everyone basically agrees with this approach except Governor Abbott, his new appointee at TJJD, and handful of legislators. But they're the only ones who can make the necessary changes!

That's the conundrum. Fixing the problem will require spending more money on the same number of kids (or even fewer, if juvenile crime continues to go down), because there are fixed costs involved with creating a new system of smaller facilities. Plus, the current ones are understaffed, suffering from the highest turnover rate of any state agency.

(N.b., one anticipates private contractors will want in on this action, too, and state facilities have a terrible track record to try to defend, so increased privatization of youth services is likely on the horizon if reform succeeds. That would reduce the initial sunk costs but create a host of additional issues.)

We're not going to make youth safe by shipping them off to TDCJ or extending that agency's control to TJJD. Wherever they're housed, more must be done to keep youth safe from both predatory staff and from being victimized by other offenders. But the mistake in the past has been to assume keeping them safe is enough. It isn't. The system is failing on many levels and, at this point, it's hard to see the resistance to following best practices recommended by basically everybody who's deeply thought about it.

From shifting the Missouri model, raising the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18, etc., pretty much everyone knows what the best policies are for protecting and reducing recidivism among youth. But the policies instead are being created based on what's best for the politicians who want to avoid accepting responsibility for bad outcomes on their watch. As long as that continues to be the case, this pattern of abuse-scandal-and-blame will continue to arise every few years. Convincing the public to ignore a problem is not the same as solving it.

MORE: See Texas Appleseed's response to the latest scandal at TDCJ's Youthful Offender Program, titled, "Young Offenders Need Developmentally Appropriate Rehabilitation."

See prior, related Grits coverage:
* The original version of this post said the whistleblower was a correctional officer. In fact, she was a supervisor for a youth program.


Anonymous said...

Apparently the bleeding heart "these poor children" advocates have never worked more than an hour or two at a time with these often vicious felons. These are criminals in every sense of the word. They are engendered from criminal families-to help solve this problem, they need to be removed from the families from which they learned their behavior-not placed closer to them, not, reunified. Get some real world sense. The kids sent to TDCJ needed to go there. There is little reporting of the abuse that employees of TJJD get daily from youth-being spit on, having feces & urine thrown on them, hit kicked, slapped & nothing is done, until these "children" go to TDCJ... and not enough of them do.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's not that there's "little reporting" of assaults on and abusive behavior toward staff, 9:41, at either TJJD or TDCJ. The Legislature has been told many times and this blog has certainly acknowledged it. However, what you're describing are functions of chronic understaffing combined with inappropriately designed and located facilities. Staff are less safe because of those things but SO ARE YOUTH.

From my vantage point, staff who want safer youth prisons have an unusual confluence of interests with reformers (similar to how the CO union at TDCJ joined inmates' heat litigation). Defending the status quo either at TJJD or the TDCJ Youthful Offender Program isn't really a credible stance at this point. The arguments for smaller, better staffed facilities near urban areas makes things safer for staff just as much as for the kids.

Anonymous said...

Let's not mention that it was female staff that offered sexual services to the young male inmates--the sexual abuse.

Anonymous said...

9:41 Here the meme is always "Lo! The Poor Innocents."

Unknown said...

Grits, at this point I am not sure what can be said that has not already been said, over and over, for the last 100 years. It's kind of astounding to me to read the comments of Abbott and his appointees.