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A Woman’s Touch

Juvenile inmates can make inviting targets for sex offenders--and women are the most frequent perpetrators. Is the Texas Youth Commission ignoring the problem?
by Published on
illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

One evening in November 2007, an 18-year-old inmate in Beaumont’s Al Price Juvenile Correctional Facility was stretched out on his bunk when a female guard named Janice Simpson entered his room. The facility was short-staffed that day, so nobody was watching or listening when Simpson, 45, asked to see the teenager’s penis. Or when he showed her. Or when she told him she liked what she saw.

Later, at about 3:30 a.m., the two had sex on the gray, stained carpet of the facility’s concrete-walled “group room.”

Earlier that year, 390 miles away at the Gainesville State School, a 25-year-old cafeteria worker named Tabithea Leach asked a juvenile inmate to accompany her into a walk-in refrigerator. Leach asked another inmate to keep watch. When she emerged from the refrigerator, Leach was smiling. “I owe you big time,” she told the lookout. When the young man came out, he looked upset. His friend asked what happened. He was reluctant to say anything, but he did say he had “fucked her.” Not long afterward, the lookout heard Leach teasing the young man about his difficulty becoming erect.

These incidents, documented in reports the Observer obtained from the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), the agency that runs these facilities, eventually resulted in both the women being fired, convicted of violating the young men’s civil rights, and placed on probation (four years for Simpson, five for Leach). Neither the perpetrators, nor the victims, nor Leach’s lookout, reported the abuse. Word leaked out through the facilities’ rumor mills, and investigators eventually began asking questions.

Neither incident has received much attention until now. Beaumont’s local news station mentioned Simpson’s arrest once. One reason, experts say, is that sexual abuse perpetrated by women is often seen as relatively harmless, if not consensual. It’s also seen as taboo. “We don’t want to talk about female sexual deviance,” says Karen Duncan, author of Sexual Predators: Understanding Them to Protect Our Children and Youths. Women, Duncan says, “are not supposed to be sexually attracted to kids.”

Those perceptions don’t jibe with reality: Nationwide, 95 percent of sexual abuse allegations in juvenile correctional facilities were against female employees, according to 2008 findings released this year by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That number is striking when you consider that just 42 percent of the facilities’ employees were women in 2008. (In 2009, 50 percent of Texas Youth Commission employees were female. The justice bureau will not release percentage breakdowns of sexual offenses by female employees in Texas, or at individual facilities. The bureau cites confidentiality as the reason.) Simpson’s and Leach’s convictions were two of only five stemming from scores of sexual-misconduct allegations against TYC staffers since 2008.

A shocking sexual-abuse scandal in TYC facilities three years ago prompted officials to take allegations and rumors of abuse more seriously. While legislative reforms mandated that an independent inspector general must investigate all allegations of sexual misconduct by TYC staffers at its 10 institutions and nine halfway houses, convictions continue to be rare.

One reason: These cases are usually “he said, she said” scenarios, with no forensic evidence and no witnesses. Some allegations were proven false. In other cases, because the inmates were mentally impaired, as many TYC inmates are, their testimony was not considered credible.

In the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report, 10 of 12 Texas facilities surveyed had higher-than-average rates of alleged sexual abuse. Two Texas facilities were among the 13 nationwide with the highest reports of sexual victimization—the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center and the Victory Field Correctional Academy in Vernon. At Corsicana, 23 percent of inmates said they’d had sexual relations with facility staff in the previous year.

Why are so few allegations being investigated? Why are convictions so rare? One reason may be the predominance of abuse by female staffers. Research indicates that women are less likely than men to be reported for sexual misconduct. That’s not just a problem in Texas: Societal myths and double standards about female sexual abuse often leave victims unprotected, while increasing the likelihood that the women will re-offend. As Duncan notes, women are supposed to be nurturers, not abusers. When we hear about female sex offenders, people either shrug or look away. “It makes us uncomfortable,” she says.

 

If the Texas Youth Commission is known for anything, it’s the 2007 sexual-abuse scandal that made headlines, led to top officials’ resignations, and spurred serious-minded reforms. In the Observer story that ignited the scandal, Nate Blakeslee (now a staff writer for Texas Monthly) documented a pattern of abuse at the West Texas State School, where two male TYC administrators sexually abused at least 10 male students over a period of years. The Dallas Morning News’ Doug Swanson and The Austin American-Statesman’s Mike Ward soon followed with damning stories that demonstrated the depths of the problems, and the lengths to which officials had gone to cover them up. Though some inmates had reported abuse to staff members, their allegations had been brushed aside repeatedly. A volunteer math tutor eventually got the story out to the Texas Rangers, who mounted an investigation and collected heaps of evidence in 2005. Even so, the two administrators had been allowed to quietly resign until the story went public.

Texas newspapers eventually uncovered hundreds of allegations of sexual misconduct by correctional officers and other TYC staff. Texas’ juvenile corrections agency was slammed by both press and legislators, not only for concealing the allegations at the West Texas State School, but for gross mismanagement and a lack of transparency in its operations. The TYC’s executive director resigned under pressure. Legislators replaced the TYC’s board and fired several officials. Charges were brought against the former assistant superintendent of the West Texas School, Ray Brookins, who this April was found guilty of sexually assaulting boys at the facility and sentenced to 10 years in prison. (The school’s former principal, John Paul Hernandez, still awaits trial on charges of engaging in oral sex with several boys. The West Texas school was shuttered this year.)

In March 2007, Gov. Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 103 into law, requiring the agency to implement radical reforms. These included creating an Office of the Inspector General to investigate complaints, an independent ombudsman to watchdog the agency, and a reporting center that takes “hotline” calls from kids in all TYC facilities 24 hours a day. Thousands of cameras were installed in the 19 remaining facilities. Employee screening was instituted to weed out likely offenders, and employees were required to undergo training designed to promote an environment free of sexual assault and intimidation. The state also took measures to shrink TYC’s population, which had nearly tripled in the 1990s thanks to “get-tough” juvenile-crime legislation, by requiring counties to house low-level youth offenders in local detention halls. Newly hired officials vowed to “eliminate the previous appearance of a ‘closed society’ at TYC.”

Several TYC officials agreed to be interviewed for this story. They allowed me to visit the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center. Citing confidentiality, they would not allow me to speak with guards or inmates, or to attend training sessions for inmates and employees on appropriate relationships. During a tour of Corsicana, I spent nearly three hours interviewing officials without seeing an inmate. “You probably think there aren’t even any kids here,” one administrator joked.

Cherie Townsend, who has won plaudits for her reform-minded leadership as the TYC’s executive director since August 2008, told me she was “disappointed” by the federal report. “It didn’t reflect the changes that have taken place within our agency, or the culture which is developing that is far more positive in TYC,” she says. Townsend says she takes a “zero tolerance” approach toward sexual abuse. She sees the findings of the survey, conducted in mid-2008, as more of a reflection of the failures of the old TYC. “The survey was done before many of these reforms were enacted,” she says, “and they certainly were done during a time when there was great upheaval and change occurring within the agency.”

Townsend says that because the survey was done anonymously, many of the allegations are surely false. “We know that when you install phones, kids give hotline tips all the time, and they’ll often [make an allegation and then] say, ‘No, I’m just kidding.’ It’s a way of getting attention.” James Smith, TYC’s director of youth services, agreed, saying the allegations were “overwhelmingly” false.

Officials pointed out that TYC inmates are, by definition, troubled kids. At intake, 43 percent admit to being gang members. Eighty-five percent have IQs below the mean score of 100. Thirty-seven percent have serious mental health problems, and 31 percent enter the facilities with documented histories of being sexually abused. Corsicana, which had the highest rate of reported sexual abuse, houses all of the state’s juvenile inmates who have diagnosable mental illness or retardation.

The U.S. Department of Justice was not so quick to brush off the report’s findings. In March, the Department began questioning TYC officials, focusing particularly on the Corsicana Center, where nearly one-quarter of the inmates alleged they’d had sexual contact with staff members. (The other facility with a high number of reports, the Victory Field Correctional Academy, has been shut down.) The Justice Department’s Review Panel on Prison Rape asked the TYC to provide documents and data about Corsicana’s policies, its operations and actions taken in response to the allegations. In June, several TYC and Corsicana center officials were summoned to Washington for sworn testimony. The TYC was not asked to make further changes for now; the federal investigation was aimed at “identifying common characteristics of institutions with a high incidence of prison rape.”

TYC officials and sexual-abuse experts agree that the troubled characteristics of Corsicana’s juvenile inmates contributed to the high incidence of reported sex abuse there. The agreement stops there. Do the inmates’ histories of sexual abuse and mental illness lead them to report more false allegations? Or do such histories make these kids easier targets for sex offenders?

 

Fifty miles east of Waco, the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center is a sprawling maximum-security facility—or “campus,” as TYC officials like to call it—housing up to 140 of Texas’ most violent and disturbed youthful offenders. The facility was built as an orphanage in 1899, and most locals still know it as the “state home.” Its low-slung brick buildings, ringed by a high fence, sit between stretches of pasture and Corsicana, an oil boomtown that has seen better days. Corsicana had the first oil field west of the Mississippi, but the gushing stopped in the 1960s. Vacant storefronts dominate the red-brick streets of the downtown commercial space in this town of nearly 25,000.

Everyone here knows somebody who works, or has worked, at the “home.” But the population inside the facility is shrouded in myth. “Most of ’em were crack babies,” says one city resident who requested anonymity. “They have no conscience. If one of them gets out, they’ll kill someone before they are found.”

Some of that fear is understandable. Seventy-five percent of the juveniles at Corsicana are violent offenders, compared with 58 percent in all TYC facilities. Every inmate at Corsicana has been diagnosed either with mental illness or mental retardation. They are more likely to have been sexually abused before they arrive: 54 percent have histories of sexual abuse.

“Almost every kid you talk to here has some sort of sexual victimization in their past,” says Laura Braly, superintendent at Corsicana. Braly, bespectacled and stout with curly black hair, is 13 years into her career with TYC. She lives at the facility and refers to the inmates as “my kids” and the caseworkers as “my caseworkers.”

“A lot of my kids have been so victimized that they are highly, highly sexual,” Braly says. “If you were on the Internet with pornography at 3 years old, that’s all you know. You don’t know how to express yourself any way other than through sexuality, and you interpret everything as being sexual.” Braly says Corsicana’s caseworkers and psychologists train kids to communicate “in other ways than sexual ways.” She says it’s “almost like what you would tell a younger child, like ‘good touch, bad touch.’ These kids might be older, but they’ve never really been taught that. So if somebody walks by and touches them on the shoulder, they go, ‘I’ve been sexually assaulted.’”

Karen Duncan, the sexual-abuse expert, says she is “stunned” by such talk. When juveniles have experienced violent or ongoing victimization, she says, “it’s possible” that they would interpret, say, a pat on the shoulder as “something sexual.” But these are rare cases, Duncan says. “I have worked in this field for 30 years,” she says, “and I have never come across anything like” what Braly alleges is the norm for Corsicana inmates who’ve been sexually abused. False allegations of sexual abuse are unusual, Duncan says, and they don’t explain the findings about sex abuse at Corsicana.

Administrators at TYC counter with several examples of false allegations. Braly says that in the past, inmates desperate to speak to a psychologist falsely reported sexual assaults to get help with other issues. Braly says she dealt with this problem by moving staff psychologists into the kids’ dorm buildings, “so you don’t have to make a false allegation to get to talk to the psychologist.”

Braly says other inmates have realized that allegations get them attention. She says one kid, “D” (his name is confidential), made false daily reports for a while. Investigators would interview him, she says, and follow him around with a video camera. “I think he liked watching all these people scurry, and this person interview you, this person do this,” Braly says.

In a string of cases at Corsicana, Braly says she discovered the juveniles were reporting abuse to go  to the hospital in Tyler for a sexual-assault exam, so they could eat hamburgers and cookies after. She says one inmate told her this was his motivation for making allegations after four or five such reports occurred in a week.

James Smith, TYC’s youth services director, offers another explanation. The juveniles, he says, sometimes pursue their gatekeepers for sex. “Occasionally you’ll get a staffer who doesn’t have a high level of self-esteem, and if they’re working with an older, more sophisticated population, the kids kind of play on that. Most teenage males who are not locked up … fantasize about women that they come into contact with: their teachers, their doctors, whoever,” Smith says. “Now you put them inside of a controlled environment, and the population of people to fantasize about is just the people who work there.” Smith says some young men from urban areas are so “sophisticated” that they may have skills in “grooming” female guards to be sexual partners. Staff members have to learn, he says, how “kids can sometimes try to manipulate them.” (Smith later told the Observer this statement wasn’t meant to blame the victims, but rather to emphasize the training female staff require to maintain “professional boundaries.”)

That expl
nation provides a “cover for abuse,” says Cynthia Totten, a program director at Just Detention International, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that seeks to end sexual violence in correctional facilities. Female sex offenders, experts say, are the ones who tend to use manipulation to get what they want.

“They are highly manipulative,” Duncan says. “They use coercion. Some people call it seduction. I call it ‘seductive coercion.’ They do a lot of demeaning, and they use a lot of masculine stereotypes, saying things like, ‘What, you can’t get it up?’” This pattern seems to fit the case at the Gainesville State School, where the cafeteria worker was needling her victim about his ability to perform sexually.

Female sex offenders also invoke stereotypes about female victimization to control their victims, experts say. In the case at the Al Price facility in Beaumont, the perpetrator allegedly threatened her victim by saying she would “press charges” against him if the story got out. This is common, Duncan says. “They will say, ‘Who are you going to tell? I can tell on you.’”

Juveniles who have previously suffered sexual abuse, like so many of those incarcerated at Corsicana, might behave in more sexual ways than your average teen, Duncan says. But if a kid makes an advance to a female staff member, “she is supposed to say, ‘You wanna step back? Let’s talk about what just happened here.’” But “female sex offenders engage” instead. When that happens, Duncan says, it’s tragic. “We pay for these facilities to help the youth, and then they get abused instead.”

Cherie Townsend, the TYC’s executive director, says that most cases are “not about staff who are predators and intending to harm. It’s often about crossing boundaries,” she says. Staff members “get into what they think is a positive relationship, and it crosses a line.”

Duncan points out that nearly all sex offenders—male or female—imagine they are in a “positive relationship” with their victims. “It’s what every sex offender says: ‘I was trying to help them.’ ” When the abuse is by women, Duncan says, there’s a tendency to sympathize with them and accept their side of the stories. She says prison officials, who have the most to lose by admitting such abuse, “tend to transform sexual offenses into things they aren’t.” Drawing an analogy with the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse by priests, Duncan says that organizations faced with systemwide charges of sexual abuse tend to discredit reports, pull inward and try to protect themselves by blaming the victims. “That’s been going on since the beginning of time,” she says.

While TYC officials paint many Corsicana inmates as “sexually sophisticated” because of their histories, experts note that sex offenders tend to prey on especially vulnerable kids. Juvenile inmates, Duncan notes, are “highly vulnerable”—three times more likely than their adult counterparts in prison to report being sexually victimized by staff or fellow inmates.

Juvenile offenders as young as 11 can be incarcerated in Texas—the youngest inmate at Corsicana is 12—but even 18- and 19-year-olds can be susceptible to abuse. In terms of cognitive, emotional, and intellectual development, they are, on average, several years behind their peers. (The median reading and math levels in TYC facilities are four and five years behind the average, respectively.) An older teen might look like an adult, Duncan notes, but “an 18- or 19-year-old inmate has the emotional maturity of a 13- or 14-year-old.”

Ignoring or minimizing sexual offenses by women on boys comes with a cost. When young men are victimized, they not only suffer psychologically, but often become sexual predators themselves. According to numerous studies, between one-fifth and one-third of male sex offenders who victimize women were sexually abused by women when they were young.

Even consensual sex behind bars can do lasting harm. Whether it’s a male or female staff member perpetrating the abuse, Totten notes, “the power dynamic is ultimately the same. That person holds the keys.”

 

In Corsicana’s aging brick buildings, along its fluorescent-lit hallways, in the utilitarian dorms and stark recreation areas, cameras are now everywhere. It’s the same in all TYC facilities, where 13,000 cameras were installed after the 2007 scandal. Nearly every inch of the facilities is recorded at all hours. James Smith, the youth services director, can see footage from any of the cameras in his Austin office in real time. The idea is to create a virtual “panopticon,” a place where everything is always under surveillance.

The cameras are meant to deter misconduct, and along with other TYC reforms, they might be working. The number of inside-the-system allegations against staff members for sexual misconduct has decreased in recent years, according to reports from the inspector general’s office, from 90 in 2008 to five in the first quarter of 2010. “I think one of the challenges in the past was that if there were no witnesses and there wasn’t any other evidence, one person said yes [that there had been an assault] and another said no,” TYC director Townsend says. “Well, the video allows us to corroborate one or the other.”

Problem solved? Not completely. Unless an incident is reported, administrators and investigators are unlikely to look at the camera footage. And kids with histories of sexual abuse have often been conditioned to stay silent.

The solution for the problems at Corsicana might be outside the purview of TYC officials—and in the hands of state legislators. Will Harrell, the TYC’s independent ombudsman from 2007 to 2009, says that a correctional institution “is not appropriate for kids with serious mental health needs” in the first place. “They are the most likely to be victimized or to have some sort of crisis,” Harrell says. These juveniles need to be in community-based mental health centers, he says, not a “secure lockdown environment.”

Meanwhile, other TYC facilities must continue to work toward becoming safe institutions. “In very well-managed, well-run facilities, you don’t see a lot of sexual assault,” says Michele Deitch, an attorney and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Late last month, four state and national advocacy groups, including Texas Appleseed, sent a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging that the TYC remains unable to ensure the safety of incarcerated youths. The groups say that inmates are still being restrained improperly; that excessive force is used to control them; that medical, mental-health and educational programs remain inadequate; and that high numbers of assaults continue to occur, particularly in the TYC’s Beaumont and Corsicana facilities.

For a model of a “well-run” juvenile corrections agency, many point to Missouri. Twenty-five years ago, the state eliminated its huge, rural detention facility, which once warehoused 650 juvenile offenders, and established 33 smaller residential facilities and 11 day treatment centers. Fences and razor wire are absent from most of these facilities. Inside, restraints are banned. The centers provide a homelike atmosphere for groups of no more than 12 children and teens. Kids undergo therapy and establish trust in small groups. Missouri has one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the country, 15 percent. (Texas’ recidivism rate is 40 percent.)

In its post-2007 reforms, the TYC has taken some steps toward replicating the “Missouri model.” But Texas will not be shutting down its large juvenile detention institutions anytime soon. Harrell, now the public policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., says “the foundations for the future are set,” partly because of reforms passed in 2007. He credits Townsend, among others, with visionary leadership. Now comes the difficult work, he says, of “capturing the hearts and minds of staff” to change the culture in these facilities. A punitive mindset dominated the TYC for decades, Harrell says. That doesn’t change overnight. And reform efforts don’t mitigate the damage done to the youngsters sexually abused by those charged with protecting them.