Blind Spots

Abuse at an Edinburg juvenile prison reveals troubles in the Texas Youth Commission


Evins innmates exit a room in the safety position, photo by Amber Novak

When the Evins Regional Juvenile Center was built in 1990 to house young males convicted of serious crimes, it was located well outside the tiny South Texas town of Edinburg. In those days, Evins’ nearest neighbor was a trailer park. The town has grown—today a gated community with a banner advertising lifetime golf memberships sits across the road from the center. Evins has grown, too. The two original dorms were built to accommodate 24 boys each. When two dorms were added in 1997 as part of the state’s drive to house its expanding population of juvenile offenders, capacity rose to 240.

The newer dorms at Evins are huge, rectangular buildings that look like industrial warehouses, sided in sheet metal and housing 96 convicted felons between the ages of 12 and 21. Inside, the newer dorms are divided into four pods of 24 occupants. The pods are built in the open-bay design widely regarded as the cheapest but most dangerous style of prison architecture. Bunk beds line the two exterior walls, and two plastic chairs stand beside each bed. Sinks, toilets, and showers are separated from the rest of dorm by a waist-high wall. In the center of these dorms is a control room with shatterproof windows open to all four pods, and a bank of television screens streaming footage from security cameras mounted in every corner of each pod.

Even as cameras keep steady watch on the inside, places like the Evins center, built in remote areas, are meant to be invisible from the outside. In late 2004, a spate of violence led to state investigations and lawsuits alleging abusive treatment of inmates. Public records of those proceedings provide a rare glimpse of the youth prison system at its worst, and the testimonies of those involved. State authorities say what happened at Evins was an aberration. Others who have been on the inside say Texas juvenile facilities are more dangerous places for both youth and staff than they were 10 years ago. The prisons are certainly facing larger challenges. Ten years ago, there were 1,686 juvenile offenders in state lockups, which are supervised by the Texas Youth Commission. In 2005, 4,358 Texas kids were incarcerated in TYC facilities.

While some states, most notably Missouri, have moved toward smaller juvenile centers and more community involvement, Texas is going in the other direction. The system has seen gang violence, drug dealing, and a revolving-door staff. Every year three out of four TYC guards leave the agency. Personnel turnover creates its own chaos as guards in understaffed facilities have to work overtime—sometimes back-to-back 12-hour shifts. The staffing ratio is one guard for every 25 inmates. “You’re always working with rookies,” says one former employee who worked for the agency for 12 years and asked not to be identified. “So you’re not just watching the kids, you’re watching them, too. You’re tired, and you’re panicked, and sometimes when something goes wrong, you just snap.”

Do the ubiquitous security cameras prevent violence? Hardly. “The cameras aren’t everywhere,” says a former staff member. “There are blind spots, and everyone knows where they are. Things happen that no one sees.”

Randall Chance, who worked for TYC for 19 years as a caseworker and then as an inspector of abuse and neglect charges, says, “There is a multitude of abuse, and it is kept very quiet. What happened at Evins in 2004 was not unusual. What was unusual about it was that anyone knew about it.”

When Nelina Garza reached work at Evins at 7 a.m. on the day before Halloween in 2004, the guard who buzzed her through the front gate told her prisoners were rioting. “I said, ‘Don’t joke with me. It’s too early,'” Garza says. “Then I looked at the security camera, and I saw what was going on, kids throwing things, breaking glass, and I said, ‘Oh my God.'”

Cell pod 3-B, photo by Amber Novak

The riot had begun at 6:45 a.m. Security was already tight due to gang-related fighting earlier in the week. That morning, as guard Gustavo Guerra opened the door to a newer dorm’s group room, two boys pushed past him and went in. Guerra ordered them out of the room, and the second guard on duty came over to help him move the boys back to their bunks. The boys attacked the guards, and a mob of others joined them, snatching Guerra’s radio before the guards could retreat into the control room and bolt the doors. The boys used mattresses to barricade the three outside doors and sprayed the dorm’s security cameras with shaving foam. They pulled the washing machine away from the wall and flooded the floor. Staff in the control room sprayed tear gas through a slot in the control-room door, but the boys wet their T-shirts in the sink, covered their faces, and carried on.

By 7:45, sufficient security staff had assembled to enter the dorm in a skirmish line, riot shields extended, and throw open canisters of tear gas. The boys responded with a barrage of miscellaneous objects—shoes, pillows, chairs, and anything else they could throw. Staff restrained the youth one by one and escorted them out of the dorm. An hour later, all the boys were in holding cells in the security unit, and the riot was over.

By noon, 13 boys were headed to the Hidalgo County Jail in vans. On the way, the boys told guards that boys in other dorms would take over the entire Evins center by the end of the day. “We own this place,” they told the guards.

Former Evins caseworker Nelina Garza, photo by Amber Novak

Garza had been a caseworker at the center for seven years. Looking back, she recalls ample warning signs that the place was about to erupt. Because of gang-related fights the previous week, authorities had canceled family visits for the weekend and called in extra security staff from other juvenile corrections centers. Garza remembers meeting with one of her caseload boys an hour or two after the cancellation. The boy—a leader in one of the Hispanic gangs—was outraged. Saturday was his birthday, he said, and his mother was coming to see him. “I didn’t know what to tell him,” Garza says. “I saw the look on his face and I said, ‘Listen, don’t do anything stupid.'”

The riot was quelled in a matter of hours, with no serious injuries. It was during the subsequent crackdown that reports of injuries piled up. As authorities re-asserted control, according to lawsuits filed against the TYC in McAllen, some guards went beyond reasonable force and subjected inmates to brutal treatment. Eventually, more than 80 allegations of abuse would be filed; 11 were confirmed by TYC investigators.

After the riot, Evins was locked down. Evins Superintendent Bill Roach had already brought in more security from other TYC facilities, including members of the Strategic Tactics and Response teams, special riot squads known as STAR forces, drawn from other juvenile prisons. In the week after the riot, Roach called on STAR teams from the Giddings State School and the Ron Jackson Correction Complex in Brownwood. The teams trained Evins’ staff to conduct proper group sessions with the boys and use de-escalation techniques to avoid physical restraint.

Former Evins inmate Omar Brisceno, photo by Amber Novak

On November 5, 2004, STAR teams from San Saba and West Texas State Schools arrived along with their supervisor, Lydia Barnard, director of corrections for the West Texas region. According to one former administrator, Barnard planned to shut the dorms down one by one and deal with the most disruptive youth one at a time. The teams lined the boys up in their dorms and boasted of their ability to bring the youth in line. Recalls former inmate Omar Brisceño, who was in Dorm 3-C at the time, “They were telling us how tough they were, how they were going to break us.”

The next day, a Saturday evening, the STAR teams descended on pod 3-D after dinner. According to TYC investigators’ notes, a member of the San Saba STAR team named James Gatliff ordered a boy to stop eating on his bed. The boy laughed, and so did his bunkmate, Lee Jackson. Gatliff and his supervisor, Brad Everett, cuffed Jackson, took him outside, and threw him into a flowerbed. Everett picked Jackson up and threw him on the ground, injuring his shoulder. Jackson asked to see a doctor, but Everett denied the request and knelt on the boy’s injured shoulder. According to Jackson’s affidavit, Everett said, “We are going to do it our way now,” then picked the boy up by his feet and swung him into a brick pillar. Gatliff and Everett eventually took Jackson back into the dorm, but when the boy asked for a shower, they dragged him back out and tossed him back into the flowerbed, where several other boys were now lying. The night was cold, and Jackson says Gatliff and Everett removed his shoes and socks, saying, “Let’s make it uncomfortable for them.” Four hours later, administrative notes show Evins staff took Jackson to a security holding cell, where he spent the night.

Similar incidents followed, according to court filings and TYC documents. Dorm 4 inmate Calvin Barefield fell asleep during a group counseling session. After he was escorted out of the dorm, according to court documents, two STAR team members picked Barefield up and used him as a battering ram, swinging his head into the doors until they opened. Outside, they ordered him to kneel, but before he could obey, they pushed him forward so that he fell on his face. One guard knelt on Barefield’s back and ground the his face against the concrete, laying the right side of his face raw and temporarily costing him the use of his right eye. In a confrontation the next day, six boys were allegedly restrained and put onto the ground outside in a bed of fire ants. Another was thrown into a cinderblock wall; medical examiners said his ribs were so bruised that 24 hours later he could not stand up straight. One guard ordered a boy named David Delgado to pull up his sagging pants to comply with dress code. When Delgado didn’t pull them high enough, the guard cuffed him and took him outside. Delgado says the guard picked him up and threw him headfirst at the ground. He landed several feet away and briefly blacked out. The injury was reported, but it was another 24 hours before Delgado saw a doctor, who noted a sprained neck and a baseball-sized swelling on his head, “consistent with having the head slammed into a hard surface at an angle greater than horizontal.”

Delgado, Barefield, and Jackson have filed suit against the TYC, charging excessive force. Each is seeking damages between $1 million and $2.5 million. At least one former Evins inmate, Pierre Sanchez, plans to file suit against TYC this month. Sanchez alleges guards cuffed him and left him outside for several hours. When the skin on one side of his body turned red with sunburn, guards turned him over so the other side burned as well. Sanchez says he was lying on an ant nest and was bitten hundreds of times, but guards refused to move him. Medical examiners found injuries on many other boys, but investigators were unable to discover definitively when and how the damage took place, and did not confirm abuse.

In the months that followed, TYC investigators found evidence of abuse, unnecessary force, and other policy violations among 14 TYC staff. The guards who manhandled Barefield and Delgado lost their jobs. Four more staff, including Superintendent Roach, resigned rather than accept discipline. According to TYC records, Roach became involved in physical restraint: He called a known leader of one of the black gangs into the group room with him, where the boy says Roach shoved him repeatedly into the wall, then put an arm around his neck and choked him until other staff arrived. Investigators did not confirm the choking charge, but found two charges of excessive force against Roach for pushing that boy and another into walls. When the charges surfaced, Roach retired. (Current Evins Supervisor Bart Caldwell says that when TYC investigators confirmed abuse, the agency turned the names of the alleged abusers over to Hidalgo County authorities. At the end of May, county records indicated none had been arrested or charged.)

Garza, the Evins worker, claims to have reported abuse to Evins administrators repeatedly over that long week, but says they ignored her. “There was really nobody to report to,” Garza says. “They all knew, and they didn’t care.” Desperate, Garza began calling the parents of her caseload boys, telling them about the abuse and asking them to file complaints with TYC, which many of them did. Garza also called Hidalgo County law enforcement and filed an abuse report with Child Protective Services. Then she called the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and the local news station. “I was panicking,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep at night. I had to make it stop.”

The FBI and the Rangers did not respond, but Channel 5 news did, and newspapers in Brownsville and McAllen picked up the story. San Saba STAR team member Gatliff remembers being released from duty at Evins and returning home to find the story on the news. “We were all told we’d done a good job and thank you very much,” Gatliff says. “Nobody said a word to us about any violations. I hadn’t even unpacked my bags, and there it was on TV…”

Gatliff says the TYC made scapegoats of STAR team members in the following days of intense media coverage. Gatliff, like others, says Evins authorities were present when the San Saba team was there, and that they approved the measures taken. “There were supervisors there with us every minute, and they knew what was going on,” Gatliff says.

According to Gatliff, the San Saba staff was told that the Evins center was out of control, and that extreme measures might be called for. “We were told that the staff at Evins were afraid to do their jobs, and somebody had to do it for them,” Gatliff says. He says he did not see anything he considered abuse while at Evins. “Sometimes the restraints can get very physical,” Gatliff says. “These kids are big, and they will hurt you. When you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be tough.”

Gatliff also says TYC provided his team with no special training on dealing with riot situations. “We were sent in there with no training, no weapons, and we did the best we could,” Gatliff says. “We were crucified.”

Current Evins superintendent Bart Caldwell, photo by Amber Novak

Current Superintendent Caldwell is a portly man with a sandy fringe of hair and a neat beard and moustache going gray. The boys at Evins call him Spongebob Squarepants for his habit of hiking his pants up. Caldwell stepped into the job at Evins in early 2005 in the aftermath of the crackdown after the 2004 riot.

Today Caldwell draws a clear line between the old Evins and the new. “There was a lot of chaos back then,” Caldwell says of late 2004. Staff morale was low; he says nearly 20 percent of lower-level guard positions at Evins were vacant, forcing the rest into constant overtime. There were no efforts to include the boys’ families in their lives, or to encourage them to visit. Caldwell has instituted the naming of an employee of the month, and organized two Family Days that quadrupled the usual number of visitors to the center. Six staff found bringing drugs to youth were fired, Caldwell says. Turnover is down, he says, and there are currently no vacancies for guards.

“What we do here is fix kids,” Caldwell says. “This job is not for everybody. But I have tried to weed out the people who are just here for a paycheck and keep the people who care about kids.”

But staff who worked before and after the disturbances in late 2004 say serious problems
persist. With the departure of the STAR team, blatant abuse of youth by guards subsided, but the sheer size of the facilities, the lack of external oversight, and the insular culture of the place make it difficult to know what’s going on in the “blind spots.” Former Evins staff tell of being asked to change records or lie to inspectors and parents about youth who are injured under the tenures of both Caldwell and predecessor Roach. They claim to have filed abuse reports that then go missing. They say they have asked to review security tapes that document abuse, only to be told that the tapes can’t be found.

It’s not that secrecy is unique to the Evins center. In eight years as an inspector for TYC, Chance says he has seen dozens of ways abuse can be swept under the rug. “Guards know how to avoid the cameras,” Chance says. “They know where they can and can’t be seen. If they are seen, they make something up.”

The agency still has no independent office of investigations. Complaints of abuse and neglect are turned over to an inspector who works out of the central office in Austin. When Garza filed what she believed to be an anonymous complaint with CPS, CPS immediately forwarded her report, with her name, to TYC’s Office of the Inspector General. The report ended up on Caldwell’s desk. In 2005, Garza says she reported several other incidents of abuse, including a boy who was handcuffed and sprayed in the face with pepper spray in January when he refused to surrender a small bag of marijuana, and a boy who was sexually molested by another inmate and left untreated over a weekend in April. Garza says Caldwell and other administrators retaliated with harassment and trumped-up charges of incompetence. Garza filed suit against TYC in May of 2005, but continued working at Evins until she slipped on a freshly waxed floor in August and was placed on medical leave. In November, she received a medical separation from the agency. “I got myself in trouble, but I couldn’t look away,” Garza says. Her suit is still pending.

Some staff say the morale of Evins’ youth was damaged by the riot and its aftermath, making rehabilitation that much harder. For every allegation of abuse that TYC confirmed, they say, other abuses were ignored. “It’s hard for some of these kids to report abuse,” says one former Evins staffer. “They have this machismo thing that they’re not supposed to talk about it if they get hurt. They overcame that and came forward, and no one believed them. Now they think there’s no point, no one’s looking after them, so just join a gang, just do what you have to do to be safe.”

A complaint filed by a staff member in August 2005 states that during an evacuation of the center anticipating Hurricane Emily, 230 boys were transported 500 miles to a TYC center in Mart, Texas, without food or water. During the 12-hour trip, boys were reportedly shackled wrist to ankle. The complaint states that some boys’ wrists were injured by the restraints, and that Evins administrators failed to report to injuries to their parents as TYC policy requires. The report also notes that staff who accompanied the youth were not provided with food, and had to buy their own.

In February, 40 Evins employees met with State Rep. Aaron Peña, an Edinburg Democrat, to complain about unsafe conditions for staff and youth. They complained that high ratios of staff to youth made it impossible to adequately supervise the boys in their charge. They also complained that the center–-perhaps fearful of more abuse charges–-has passed such strict rules about when and why staff could place youth in restraint that it had impaired their ability to discipline boys.

The view from surveillance cameras in a control room at Evins, photo by Amber Novak

In recent weeks, gang fighting has picked up again at Evins. “The bunnies and the squirrels are not getting along,” Caldwell says. “We’ve been busy. It’s something we’re always dealing with.” On June 5, just days before the Observer went to press, police were called to Evins in response to reports that boys had rioted and that a youth had stabbed a staffer with a homemade weapon, according to local news accounts.

Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature continues to ask TYC to manage ever-larger juvenile prisons. In April, the state completed construction on an expanded campus in the tiny town of Mart. Between its two units, that McLennan County center now has beds waiting for 960 boys. It will be one of the largest juvenile facilities in the country, and it will have many security cameras. But will anyone on the outside be able to monitor conditions?

Will anyone want to?

Former Observer intern Emily Pyle is a freelance writer in Austin.