Shades of Abu Ghraib

It’s rare to see government move so quickly. A little less than two weeks after the Observer broke the story of an alleged sex abuse scandal and cover-up at the West Texas State School in Pyote (see “Hidden in Plain Sight,” February 23), the Texas Youth Commission’s executive director had resigned, and the governor had removed the chairman of the agency’s board. In a moment of high drama, Chip Harrison—one of the TYC supervisors named in Nate Blakeslee’s story—was suspended during a Senate committee hearing on the scandal. And there appears to be plenty more evidence of abuse beyond the allegations of misconduct by two former supervisors at Pyote. TYC admits it has handled at least 90 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct by staff and contractors since 2000. Something is clearly rotten in how the state deals with youthful offenders.

The Senate was so outraged that on February 28 it reconsidered its afternoon adjournment to hold an evening meeting, rare this early in the legislative session, to call for a Legislative Audit Committee investigation, and to consider asking the governor to put the TYC under conservatorship. A conservator would take over the agency and would likely remove many of its senior staff.

At press time, House Speaker Tom Craddick had endorsed the idea, but Gov. Rick Perry was unenthusiastic about taking over the agency, which through its 13 schools houses about 3,000 kids under age 21, preferring instead to appoint an independent inspector general. A spokesman for Perry told The New York Times, “Leadership starts at the top, and the governor believes the very top leadership has failed.”

The Houston Chronicle reported that the governor’s office was alerted to the scandal at Pyote as early as 2005, but failed to act. Perhaps Perry had more important concerns than the victimization of these youngsters under the care of the state, like running for re-election. But it’s not really fair to place the blame for this mess solely on Perry, aka “the guy at the top.” The real culprit is George W. Bush.

In 1994 candidate Bush used a spike in juvenile crime to attack Gov. Ann Richards in his ultimately victorious election campaign. The crime surge was already declining, but the public hadn’t realized that yet. A year later, then-Gov. Bush pushed through the Legislature an ambitious reorganization of the TYC that stressed corrections over rehabilitation. Over the next five years, the number of kids in the TYC system ballooned by 2,200, and the average length of incarceration increased by about 40 percent. Bush’s reforms put more kids into the system, creating a culture where supervisors habitually used “indeterminate sentencing,” which allows TYC officials to control the length of incarceration based on the behavior of inmates. Blakeslee reported that at least one supervisor involved in the alleged abuse used this power to coerce kids into sex. The changes at TYC served as one of the cornerstones of Bush’s record in Texas as a “compassionate conservative.” He would trumpet his handling of juvenile criminals in his run for the White House in 2000. In what now, unfortunately, will have a completely different meaning, Bush called the reforms “tough love.”

Like the prison-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, Bush created a punitive environment with little oversight. He gave officials absolute control over a vulnerable population. Yet somehow we continue to be surprised that the eventual result is official abuse. In the coming months, the Legislature, with or without Perry, will attempt to clean up this sordid system. After Blakeslee’s story pulled the string, it’s time to let the whole mess unravel.

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Published at 12:00 am CST