The TYC still has problems

Three years after the Texas Youth Commission was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal, there are still major problems at its facilities.

In a formal complaint asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate, Texas Appleseed, Advocacy Inc., the Center for Public Representation and the National Center for Youth Law said the commission is unable to ensure the safety of the 1,700 youngsters it incarcerates because of operational flaws, including inadequate staffing, improper restraints and excessive force.

The complaint also alleges that:

• Youths are not being provided proper medical and mental health care and educational programs.

• Youths are improperly restrained to keep them under control, and excessive force has been used on several occasions.

• High numbers of youth-on-youth assaults continue to plague the agency’s lockups in Beaumont and Corsicana — which last year won the dubious distinction in a federal report of having the second-highest sexual assault rate in the country among youth prisons.

“Our recent visits to facilities indicate broader systemic problems that TYC leadership has not resolved,” the complaint states. “These problems are not isolated to specific sites, but exist throughout TYC’s system of lockdown facilities.”

Youth Commission officials said that the safety of its inmates and staff members remains “a top priority” and that they planned to investigate the allegations.

The commission is “taking this letter and the concerns presented in it seriously,” an agency statement said.

You can read the letter here. Governor Perry, of course, thinks everything is just peachy:

Gov. Rick Perry’s office said in a statement that Texas can fix any problems on its own.

“Since 2007, Gov. Perry has passed sweeping reforms to ensure the safety of incarcerated youth in the TYC system, and the state will continue to improve the system without the help of the federal government,” the statement said.

But some other folks think maybe it’s time to tear it all down.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, says keeping young offenders in their home communities has proven more successful than any other approach. Most offenders are from urban areas where there are greater professional services available than in small, rural towns that are home to TYC lockups. “They just can’t get a staff … that is competent to provide safety for the children,” Whitmire says of TYC. If he had his druthers, Whitmire says, he would consolidate and shrink TYC facilities and instead put more money into community-based plans that keep youths closer to home. “It’s just dilapidated,” he says. “They need professional help, and [it’s] just not in these facilities.”

When Whitmire first brought up the idea of abolishing or downsizing TYC, [Deborah Fowler, the legal director of Texas Appleseed] was opposed. She was hopeful two years ago that [Cherie] Townsend, TYC’s new executive director, who had three decades in juvenile justice and a track record of successful programs in other states, could save the agency. But after touring the facilities in recent months and talking to inmates, she changed her mind. “I’m certainly open to ideas and thoughts about how to reform TYC short of abolishing it,” Fowler says, “but my primary concern right now is making sure kids in TYC facilities are safe.”

I will be running an interview with Sen. Whitmire next week. This is one of the topics we discussed. Tune in then to hear more about what he thinks about this.

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