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Overlooked Heroes

Three staffers led effort to overhaul the Texas Youth Commission
by Published on

In a session that will be remembered for its stalled legislation and discordant ending as much as anything actually accomplished, passage of an ambitious reform bill for the troubled Texas Youth Commission seems to have happened almost effortlessly. Just a few days after the story of sex abuse and cover-up at the West Texas State School in Pyote broke, the Senate met in a rare evening session to address problems at the youth corrections agency. A special joint committee to investigate the agency formed later that week. A 92-page bill was drafted and zipped through committees, floor passage, and on to the governor’s desk. How did such major change happen so fast? The appalling nature of the scandal and the daily drumbeat of news stories helped keep lawmakers focused. At least as important, however, was the fact that by the time the Pyote story broke, TYC reform had been in the works for months. It was led by a small group of legislative staffers whose work has been overshadowed in the rush of stories covering the fallout from the Pyote scandal. Three of those staffers, Alison Brock, Athena Ponce, and Marsha McLane, were on the dais in the House of Representatives on May 14, when the House honored members of the media, law enforcement, and advocacy groups who helped uncover the TYC scandal. None of the three received an honorary resolution from the Legislature, but each was indispensable in turning a scandal into a piece of sound public policy.

Marsha McLane and Athena Ponce

Brock, chief of staff for veteran Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, was the first to hear about the cover-up at Pyote, when she had dinner last October with a youth corrections reform advocate named Isela Gutierrez. Brock, who is in her mid-30s, wears her hair pulled back and a collection of bracelets on her wrists, one of which says “Truth.” She has been tracking problems at TYC for years, ever since a distraught woman walked into Turner’s state Capitol office in 2002 complaining that her son had been assaulted at the Crockett State School. The woman was not only in the wrong office, she was in the wrong city. She was looking for Jim Turner, her congressman. Instead she found Brock, a former juvenile probation officer who had done her master’s thesis on the effects of the “tough on crime” laws passed under Gov. Bush in 1995. The laws greatly expanded the number of youths incarcerated in TYC. (She summarizes her thesis, titled “Revictimization of Youth in Incarceration,” this way: “If you never knew how to feel like a pathetic, shitty little asshole, we’ll show you.”) Brock was more than willing to listen. “This is the key: when you have a mom that is pissed off and is willing to talk to people about it,” she says.

Brock drove to Crockett, toured the school, and talked to staff and inmates. She found an institution in disarray. She interviewed one young man who had been in security lockup for a rules infraction for two weeks before doctors discovered that guards had broken his collarbone while subduing him. She found that the staff secretly despised the Crockett superintendent, who was considered abusive of employees and inmates. A meeting with then-TYC Executive Director Steve Robinson resulted in the superintendent’s suspension. A few months later, in a turn of events that prefigured administrative failings at Pyote, Brock received a letter informing her that none of the allegations against the superintendent had been sustained, and that he was to be reinstated. Crockett employees who confided in Brock felt let down and betrayed, and Brock was discouraged. She tried to get the media involved, but couldn’t get any reporters to bite. One TV news producer told her that viewers would not be likely to sympathize with these victims. “I got a real dose of reality about how things work around here,” she says.

Years later, when Brock heard about Pyote, she was neither surprised nor particularly optimistic that this would be the case to drag the system’s troubles onto center stage. Still, she called Texas Ranger Brian Burzynski, the investigating officer in the Pyote case, to get the details, and then told everyone at the Capitol she thought would care. One was fellow House staffer Marsha McLane, in the office of Rep. Jerry Madden, a Plano Republican who chairs the House Committee on Corrections. Like Brock, McLane had been working on TYC reform well before the Pyote story surfaced. A plainspoken woman with a motherly laugh, McLane joined Madden’s staff in early 2006 after a 30-year career as an administrator in the adult prison system. In the spring of 2006, Madden’s office got a couple of calls from officers at the San Saba unit complaining about out-of-control youth and dangerous conditions. McLane began her own investigation, collecting incident reports from San Saba. In one case she reviewed, in which an inmate had been accused of raping a fellow inmate, agency investigators determined that a correctional officer had failed to adequately monitor the youths; the officer was disciplined. The rape itself was apparently never referred to local law enforcement for prosecution. (Months later, in the wake of the Pyote scandal, McLane learned just how common it was for TYC to not follow up on crimes committed in TYC units-by both inmates and staff.) “We began talking to administrators and board members about rape awareness programs,” McLane recalls. “Their attitude was, ‘Oh, we don’t have a problem with that at our schools.’ ” The board seemed strangely disconnected from what was going on in the agency, McLane says. They either weren’t getting the straight story from the executive staff, or they weren’t asking the right questions. She began work on a series of reform bills, one of which would have overhauled the agency’s inspector general system, making it a truly independent office that reported to the board instead of the executive director.

Unbeknownst to McLane, similar proposals were taking shape in the Senate. Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen, had become interested in TYC reform when several employees at the Evins unit in his district were accused of beating inmates following a riot in the fall of 2004 [see "Blind Spot," June 16, 2006]. Hinojosa convinced Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to authorize an interim report on TYC following the 2005 legislative session. Legislative aide Athena Ponce, then 26, became the project’s point person, though she was one of the least experienced employees in Hinojosa’s Capitol office. “I volunteered to do it. I said if it seemed like I couldn’t handle it, he could put someone more capable on it,” she recalls. Ponce, who is barely 5 feet tall and has red hair and a shy smile, organized a daylong hearing in McAllen that summer. Legislators heard a litany of complaints from parents, former inmates, and staff about the state of the juvenile corrections system. In November, Hinojosa and Houston Democratic Sen. John Whitmire made a surprise visit to Evins to see conditions for themselves. Hinojosa’s staff began working on bills to reduce the guard-to-inmate ratio, separate younger youths from the general population, and create an independent inspector general’s office.

When Ponce heard about Pyote (in a conversation with McLane) in late January of this year, she began compiling a file on the case, collecting whatever documents and information she could from Ranger Burzynski and, until agency administrators intervened, from TYC investigator Tish Elliott-Wilkins, who did an early investigation of the agency’s handling of Pyote before the story broke. Ponce wrote a memo for her boss, whose first inclination was to go public with the story to get the media involved. TYC Executive Director Dwight Harris was scheduled to appear before the Senate Finance Committee on February 1. Unbeknownst to Harris, Hinojosa distributed Ponce’s memo to several other senators present at the hearing, and they read it as Harris prepared to testify. Hinojosa surprised Harris by asking several questions about the story, effectively breaking an official silence about the case that had lasted for almost two years.

On February 13, Harris and TYC General Counsel Neil Nichols came to Hinojosa’s office to discuss the agency’s handling of the case. After Hinojosa left the room, Ponce took over the meeting and began methodically quizzing Harris on the sequence of events at Pyote. Harris seemed detached and uninformed, according to Ponce. Among other things, Ponce confronted Harris and Nichols with two apparently contradictory versions of an official report by Elliott-Wilkins, one of which seemed designed to absolve agency brass from responsibility for what happened at Pyote. Ponce also had two versions of a disciplinary report on Ray Brookins, one of the alleged perpetrators at Pyote. Once again, the report seemed to have been rewritten to deflect embarrassment from agency officials in Austin. Harris was at a loss to explain the discrepancies. As the meeting dragged on, Harris became increasingly defensive, Ponce recalls. It was a preview of the kind of scrutiny Harris and his associates would soon be facing from a much larger audience.

Ponce gave The Texas Observer access to what she had found about Pyote, and on February 16, the story broke on the Observer Web site. The Dallas Morning News followed with its own Pyote story, part of a TYC investigative series already underway, and the rest of the dailies jumped on board. Harris was ordered to appear before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee the following week. Instead, he resigned.

In the weeks that followed, Hinojosa’s Capitol office was flooded with fresh complaints from TYC employees, inmates, and family members about conditions at facilities all over the state. Boxes of files soon surrounded Ponce, who shares a narrow strip of office with two other staffers. She found herself following up on dozens of leads and calling TYC almost daily to request records on inmates and employees. When a grand jury in Brownwood failed to indict a former guard accused of having sex with female inmates, Ponce contacted the district attorney’s office to remind them that TYC officials had video evidence of the alleged crimes from surveillance tapes. The prosecutor went back to the grand jury, this time with the tapes in hand, and an indictment was returned. Ponce’s cluttered office had become a kind of information clearinghouse for the scandal.

In the heady days following the breaking of the Pyote story, a joint committee of representatives and senators was hastily formed to work on reform measures, and Marsha McLane was made the chief of staff. Together with staff from Madden’s corrections committee, McLane began convening a series of meetings on the rapidly growing reform bill, bringing everyone to the table. This included advocates like Isela Gutierrez, ACLU chief Will Harrell, and Marc Levin of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, as well as representatives from the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and the state Department of Criminal Justice. “Everyone who had looked hard at TYC had come to the same conclusions about the reforms needed. It wasn’t rocket science. But the agency and the board just didn’t see it,” McLane says. The bill envisioned a drastically reduced inmate-to-staff ratio. Madden and Jay Kimbrough, the TYC conservator appointed by Gov. Perry, announced that thousands of inmates would have their cases reviewed to determine if they were eligible for release. The bill also discouraged judges from sending youths to TYC for misdemeanor charges. Predictably, there was some backlash, notably from Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who warned of an increase in juvenile crime across the state. But the bill’s detractors never got any traction. “There was just too much momentum, and we had too many people on board,” McLane says. The bill stopped short of closing remote facilities like Pyote, though there was broad consensus that doing so, while politically unpopular, was necessary. The TYC will undergo review by the Sunset Commission next year, allowing legislators and advocates to see how well the reforms have been implemented and what other changes are needed.

While the reform bill is undeniably a landmark in juvenile justice reform in Texas, there is still much work to be done, as Alison Brock pointed out in an interview in her office in the waning days of the session. Someone had taped a sign to her office door that read “Alison Brockovich.” It was just a few days after her appearance on the dais in the House, but she already seemed weary of the back patting. “A piece of paper isn’t going to stop someone from raping someone else,” she says, referring to the reform bill. Brock says the key is getting good superintendents in the facilities, and that the agency should be doing national searches now to find them. “What you need is a person in the facility with integrity. Somebody whose attitude is not, ‘I’ve got to keep my job,’ but, ‘I’ve got to do what it takes to keep these kids safe,’ ” she says. “Safe means you don’t get raped and you don’t get beat up. We have to get to where there’s no tolerance for that,” she says. “Absolutely none.”

Observer Contributing Writer Nate Blakeslee is a senior editor at Texas Monthly. His book Tulia is out in paperback from PublicAffairs.