Texas juvenile: 'This place is hurting me more than helping me'
The Giddings State School has a history of violence and gang activity, disruptions and staffing and supervision issues
By Mike Ward
AUSTIN, Texas — This plea for help came in black and white.
"I feel that this place is hurting me more than helping me," the 16-year-old youth from Williamson County, now incarcerated on a burglary charge at the Giddings State School, wrote earlier this week, seeking help from a state senator.
"Up until I was 14, I was a straight A student, from a middle class family. I had never gotten in trouble for anything more than being a class clown," the youth stated in a two-page handwritten letter.
"My life then took a turn for the worse and began to further deteriorate."
Now at Giddings, one of the state's five youth lockups and the one where top Texas Juvenile Justice Department officials say they send the most-violent youths, the first-time offender serves his time in an environment where more than 61 percent of the 220 youths housed there committed violent crimes.
Most are 17 or 18 years old, adults under current Texas law.
Last week, responding to a growing scandal over sexual assaults at the state's long-troubled youth lockups, Gov. Greg Abbott dispatched Texas Rangers to conduct "a detailed investigation" to determine the extent of the alleged misconduct and operational problems at the agency.
The move has been widely viewed as a prelude to eventually downsizing the population in the state's lockups, perhaps doing away with all but one for the most violent offenders. The point of the shift would be to provide treatment and rehabilitation in community-based urban programs rather than at remote rural centers.
Like other state lockups, Giddings has a long history of violence and gang activity, disruptions and staffing and supervision issues, research by the Houston Chronicle shows.
Legislative leaders on juvenile justice issues who reviewed the letter suggested a youth with such a slim criminal record should not be at Giddings -- and insisted he is likely one of the 250 youths in state lockups that Texas Juvenile Justice Department officials have acknowledged would be better off in community-based programs.
"This letter highlights why our current system is not working, still not working after all these years," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who was an architect of sweeping reforms to the system a decade ago after another sex-abuse scandal.
He received the Dec. 7 letter from the youth at Giddings.
"We fixed many things, but the violence has continued to be a problem because the youths we are holding now are a much different population, a much tougher population, than the system is equipped to handle. It's now time to fix that, once and for all," Whitmire said.
Ten years ago, with sex between guards and youths was a chronic and when top officials were accused of systematically covering up the problems, then-Gov. Rick Perry and lawmakers undertook a top-to-bottom overhaul of Texas juvenile-justice system.
It was first significant change in a decade, when the state enacted a model of so-called "graduated sanctions" that was designed to keep lower-level, non-violent offenders in community based treatment programs, rather than sending all offenders to a remote state school at their first misstep.
As part of the 2007 reforms, the state moved to keep more youths in local treatment and rehabilitation programs that generally had a higher success rate than the state lockups. All but five of the state's centers, most located in remote rural areas, were closed in what reduced the population there from about 5,000 to 1,000.
Even with those changes, problems remained.
The state lockups continued to be plagued by gang activity, violence among youths and with guards, high staff turnover and large numbers of staff injuries -- issues that officials tried unsuccessfully to reduce by installing millions of dollars worth of surveillance cameras and with additional training and program changes.
Youth corrections officials conceded that the remaining youths in the state-run lockups were mostly older, and serving time for violent crimes. In many instances, they were much tougher to deal with than the programs were in were designed to help, juvenile corrections officials said.
State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said that though the population is smaller than in 2007, the problems are almost identical.
"We ought to just completely do away with the system we have in place and send juveniles to their probation departments back home, except maybe for the worst of the worst," he said. "At some point, we have to take drastic action."
David Reilly, the agency's executive director, echoed that sentiment at a recent hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, where members demanded the violence and sex assaults be curbed.
At many lockups, specifically including Giddings, Reilly acknowledged, "we have very difficult and challenging young men."
He testified that about 250 youths current in state lockups "could be better served in a less-confined environment, and as many more might benefit from community-based programs, as well.
The basic problem in curbing violence and assaults, even the four confirmed cases of sex between guards and youths, Reilly said, is that "the staff presence to manage these kids is not here."
Just a few weeks before, after one guard was convicted and three other employees were arrested for allegedly having sex with youths at the Gainesville State School, four Texas civil rights and youth-justice reform groups called on the state to close all of its remaining lockups and replace them with community-based treatment and rehabilitation centers.
Those were the same recommendations that other groups made after the scandal in 2007.
No details of what the Rangers inquiry has found so far have been made public, though sources familiar with the ongoing investigation told the Chronicle said they expect information will be forwarded to Abbott soon.
In past decades. Texas' juvenile-justice system grew from a network of orphanages and work farms into training centers that gradually became secure facilities across the state.
Recidivism remains high in the state-run lockups, all located in remote areas, and is much lower in the county programs where youths remain closer to their homes, where they can participate in rehabilitation and treatment programs.
The internal report shows that the re-arrest rate among youths released from the state-run juvenile lockups was nearly 74 percent in 2014, three years after their release. That was down from more than 76 percent in 2010.
Twenty-six percent of the youths released after serving time for violent felonies were back behind bars after three years, and the overall re-incarceration rate was nearly 42 percent, according to the report by TJJD officials.
They noted that the current recidivism rates have dropped over the last five years -- even though the current rates are higher than at most state prisons.
The frequency rate for staff injuries at Giddings last year was 23.7 percent, a factor in the 51 percent staff turnover at the facility, officials said. At all TJJD lockups, the turnover rate was a whopping 43 percent -- a rate that officials acknowledged in the report was "among the highest in the state."
'A tragedy that shouldn't happen'
Echoing sentiments of other House and Senate leaders in recent weeks, state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was among several members of the Senate Finance Committee who agreed at the hearing that change must come soon.
"I think we have got to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this, and correct the problems," he said.
Added state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston: "We have a responsibility to the taxpayers and the youths in these facilities to get this right."
Whitmire and others think that includes the youth at Giddings who penned his plea for help.
"When he came into the system, he was supposed to get help," Whitmire said. "Instead, he does not appear to be getting help. And he may well come out of the state's current system a lot worse off than when he went in.
"That's a tragedy that shouldn't happen."
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