“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
– Nelson Mandela
Adults can’t be trusted to take care of children placed in their custody in an institutional setting. At least it seems that way in Texas. It’s not just the recent problems the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s (TJJD) state school system, it’s the long and sordid history in this State vis-à-vis delinquent children committed to those state schools.
From its inception in 1949, Texas’ state school system for juvenile delinquents (Texas Youth Development Council, Texas Youth Council, Texas Youth Commission, and now, Texas Juvenile Justice Department) has been fraught with scandal and secrecy regarding the abuse of children it its charge.
In the early 1950s for example, allegations of abuse surfaced at the Gainesville school for girls. During a habeas corpus hearing, one girl testified about how one man beat her with a leather strap while two other men held her. The 1960s, under the leadership of TYC director James Turman, saw an FBI investigation of the Gatesville school for physical abuse and denial of routine medical care, another investigation of a guard beating a resident into a coma, and a legislative surprise inspection of a state school where the legislators observed residents with bruises, black eyes and swollen faces.
The 1960s also ushered in a golden era of juvenile rights, with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding cases like Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966) and In re Winship, 697 U.S. 358 (1970). The seminal U.S. Supreme Court case regarding juvenile rights, In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), was published in 1967.h, Gault made it clear that children in the juvenile justice system have basic due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. Among those rights, which we seem to take for granted today, are the right to counsel and the right to have a hearing. Despite Gault, juvenile courts in Texas were slow to recognize these rights.
Morales v. Turman
In 1970, 15-year-old Alicia Morales was working and earning $70 per week. And like clockwork, her father took all but $5 of it each week. When Alicia got tired of this and refused to cooperate with her father, he decided to punish her by involving the state. Alicia’s father, El Paso County’s Chief Juvenile Probation Officer, and the County Judge signed an “agreed judgment” committing Alicia to TYC (Texas Youth Council). The commitment was done without a hearing and without counsel, contrary to Gault’s mandates. The reason for Alicia’s commitment: she was deemed to be an incorrigible child.
Because that kind of procedure-less commitment was still common in Texas, a class-action a federal class-action lawsuit was filed, with Alicia being one of the named plaintiffs. The lawsuit was expanded to include abuse occurring at several of the state schools. What the investigation uncovered was horrific.
After a six-week trial, Judge William Wayne Justice entered an emergency interim order granting preliminary injunctive relief. The injunctive relief included such matters as physical force and solitary confinement. The order contained 32 findings of fact, including:
- Correctional officers at Mountain View presently administer, or have in the past administered, various forms of physical abuse, including slapping, punching, and kicking. One form of this physical abuse, referred to as “racking,” consists of requiring the inmate to stand against the wall with his hands in his pockets while he is struck a number of times by blows from the fists of correctional officers. Other abuse consists of correctional officers administering blows to the face with both open and closed hands.
- Tear gas and similar chemical substances have been used by agents or employees of the defendants on Mountain View inmates in situations in which no riot or other disturbance was imminent. One inmate, for example, was tear-gassed while locked in his cell for failure to work; another was gassed for fleeing from a beating he was receiving; and another was gassed by a correctional officer supervisor while he was being held by two 200-pound correctional officers. 17. Most or all of these security facilities contain single rooms or cells in which juveniles are, or have been in the past, locked for periods of time as long as a month or more, with no opportunity to leave the cell except for daily bathing, hygiene, and eating. Many juveniles so confined have little or no contact with casework, medical, or psychological staff during the period of their confinement. 20. Inmates in some security facilities have been forced to perform repetitive, make-work tasks, such as pulling up grass without bending their knees or buffing a floor for hours with a rag. During the pendency of this lawsuit, inmates were permitted to adopt a kneeling posture, rather than a bending posture with unbent knees, for the performance of the grass-pulling.
Morales v. Turman, 364 F. Supp. 166, 170-172 (E.D.Tex. 1973).-172
Fortunately, major reforms came out of this litigation. The centerpiece of the reforms came in 1973 with the creation of Title 3 of the Family Code, the Juvenile Justice Code. Professor Robert O. Dawson was the primary draftsman, and many of the concepts and provisions from then are still found in the code today.
TYC Scandal 2007
During a Texas Senate Finance Committee hearing on February 1st, 2007, Senator Juan Hinojosa asked TYC’s executive director, Dwight Harris, about sex-abuse allegations at the west Texas state school in Pyote. There were rumors about sex abuse at Pyote, but this was the first time it was spoken of out loud in a public forum. This was the beginning of another scandal at TYC.
From December 2003, and continuing through February 2005, Pyote’s assistant superintendent used his position over the juveniles to extract sexual favors from them. He had the authority to shorten or lengthen a juvenile’s indeterminate sentence at the school. The superintendent would bring juveniles into his office late at night, at times continuing into the early morning, where he would engage in sex acts with them. Because of the power imbalance, the juveniles had little choice but to acquiesce, lest their stay at Pyote be extended.
These allegations were bad. The cover-up of and dismissiveness toward these allegations may have been worse. Although knowledge of the unusual nighttime visits and general unease about the assistant superintendent’s activities made it up the chain of command, the concerns remained inside the Pyote State School’s administration. It took two juveniles confiding in a volunteer tutor, who in turn reported it to a Texas Ranger, to get law enforcement involved.
Despite the report to the Texas Ranger, nothing happened for the next two years. Although there was sufficient evidence to press forward with charges, neither the local county prosecutor nor the U.S. Attorney had any interest in prosecuting. It wasn’t until the story broke two years later, following Senator Hinojosa’s questions in the Senate Finance Committee, that the allegations were treated seriously.
While the Pyote scandal was unfolding, the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating Evins Regional Juvenile Justice Center in Edinburg for violence occurring at that school. On March 15, 2007, the DOJ wrote a letter to then-governor Rick Perry to report its findings. In addition to making findings about juvenile on juvenile violence, the DOJ found “an unacceptably high degree of physical abuse of youths by staff at Evins. We also found a disturbing consistency in the youths’ accounts of the use of unnecessary physical restraint and excessive force by many Evins’ staff.”
Other problems at other facilities soon came to light, such as the superintendent at Ayers halfway house in San Antonio shredding files and Coke County Juvenile Justice Center hiring a registered sex offender as a guard.
In response to these problems at TYC, the Texas legislature passed, and the governor signed SB 103 during that very legislative session. Additional reforms in subsequent legislative sessions were also enacted. Those reforms were designed to reduce the number of juveniles committed to TYC and provide for improved safety procedures.
Post TYC Scandal 2007
More than a decade after the Pyote and Evins scandals broke and legislative changes putatively fixed the problems, problems still exist within the state school system. Headlines like “Gov. Greg Abbott ask Texas Rangers to investigate sexual abuse at youth lockups,” “Juvenile Justice Department employee arrested for having sex with inmate at Brownwood” and “Texas juvenile prison officer charged with sexually assaulting teenage inmate in his cell” are still all too commonplace.
The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, within the last year, released a report on sexual victimization reported by youth in juvenile facilities. While nationally, an estimated 7.1% of juveniles reported being sexually victimized, three of Texas’ five state schools, McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, Gainesville State School, and Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Facility, were ranked among the worst in the country.
After seven decades of existence, is the TJJD state school system working? Or does a radical change need to happen? Should Texas take a bold step like California governor Gavin Newsome did this summer when he announced he was defunding California’s juvenile prison system? The funds that would normally have paid for California’s juvenile prisons will instead be redirected back to the local counties.
Physical and sexual abuse of juveniles seem to be woven into the fabric of TJJD state school system. The past seven decades have shown that.
Randal Chance, a retired inspector general for TYC, said during the 2007 scandal “TYC has established a dynasty of corruption that condones the mistreatment of youth in its care.” State Senator John Whitmire, quoted in a December 13, 2019, article from the Texas Observer: “I think the campuses are out of control, the system’s dysfunctional and very dangerous. I’m frustrated; I don’t know what it’s going to take. My worst fear is that it’s going to take a loss of life or lives to change it.”
Which begs the question: is it time to defund TJJD’s state schools?