More than a decade ago, rampant sexual abuse inside Texas’ youth lockups forced the state to reform its scandal-plagued juvenile justice system. Children who committed misdemeanors were no longer sent to state lockups with a documented history of failing to keep them safe. That and other changes radically reduced the number of juveniles in the custody of the state, which over the past decade has shuttered 10 state-run youth lockups.
However, the 428 children currently confined at three of Texas’ five remaining juvenile prisons, which continue to house youth who have committed serious or violent offenses, face some of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the country, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The new analysis released by the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) this week estimates that about 7 percent of youth in juvenile lockups nationwide reported sexual victimization in 2018. That’s down from 9.5 percent in 2012, the last time the bureau studied the issue. Yet at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, 14 percent of children reported being coerced or forced into sexual activity by staff or other youth. The rate was even higher at the Gainesville State School and Waco’s McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, where one in six youth detained reported abuse.
The BJS survey, conducted March through December 2018, tracks the first year under the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s new executive director, Camille Cain, who took over in January 2018 after a wave of staff members were accused of sexual misconduct with juveniles, triggering a shakeup at the agency. Cain promised a new strategy that included training staff to provide trauma-informed care, as well as reducing the population in the five remaining youth lockups. TJJD spokesperson Brian Sweany said the agency has implemented other reforms since the BJS survey ended last December, including hiring new superintendents at each of the three facilities flagged with high rates of sexual abuse and mandating body cameras for all guards, who the agency now calls “youth development coaches.” Sweany also said the population at the five remaining juvenile prisons has dropped from 859 in 2018 to 786 this month.
“I believe that all of these are serious steps to reform, but it will take time for everything to take root,” Sweany said in a statement.
As I’ve written before, the chaos inside Texas’ remaining juvenile prisons has been evident for years. Previous scandals led to the creation of an independent ombudsman’s office, which sends inspectors to visit the state’s juvenile prisons and file monthly reports on conditions inside.
Judging by those reports, sexual abuse is only one of many problems at the facilities. During the survey period for the BJS report, ombudsman staff visiting the McLennan County lockup reported sexual activity among youth, as well as “bullying, extortion, and assaults” and “critically low staffing levels [that] continue to affect every aspect of the daily operations and programming.” At the Gainesville State School, in addition to numerous reports about attempted escapes and a raging “gang war,” ombudsman staff reported that four kids said a female guard watched them masturbate. At Ron Jackson, inspectors with the ombudsman’s office reported that “several staff were having relationships with youth on the dorm” and documented several suicide attempts, part of a supposed “suicide pact.”
Ombudsman reports filed since the BJS survey ended show the facilities still suffer from severe understaffing, to the extent that some inspectors felt unsafe during site visits. In February this year, guards at the McLennan County lockup reported working 14- to 17-hour shifts. One guard reported urinating on herself because she couldn’t leave her post to use the restroom. Meanwhile, reports of abuse continue to surface. In August, a male guard was fired and subsequently charged for allegedly having sex with a girl detained at the Ron Jackson facility. In October, another male guard at the McLennan County facility was arrested after he allegedly coerced a teenage boy to perform oral sex on him.
The new BJS report has sparked outrage among Texas lawmakers. State Representative Harold Dutton, a Democrat from Houston who chairs the House oversight committee for the juvenile justice system, vowed to “get to the bottom of this,” saying in a statement, “we have no choice but to root out the evil in the system.” State Senator John Whitmire, a frequent TJJD critic and another Houston Democrat who chairs his chamber’s oversight committee, was dismayed. “I think the campuses are out of control, the system’s dysfunctional and very dangerous,” he told the Observer. “I’m frustrated; I don’t know what it’s going to take. My worst fear is that it’s going to take a loss of life or lives to change it.”
Michele Deitch, an expert on prison oversight who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, hopes that the high rates of sexual abuse will bolster calls from advocates to dissolve the juvenile prison system and house the remaining youth at smaller urban facilities closer to their homes, which would provide better treatment and mental health services. “Texas is one of the few states that still has these really large congregate facilities for juveniles, and that’s where we’re seeing these awful numbers,” she said. “If these numbers are correct, Texas is really bad. One out of six, one out of seven kids getting sexually assaulted? None of us would ever accept that if those were our kids.”
Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, a group fighting to end prison rape and hold the government accountable for it, blamed the assault rates in Texas’ juvenile prisons on a failure of leadership. She pointed out that the feds already flagged high rates of sexual victimization in Texas youth lockups nearly a decade ago. “They had years to clean up their act, and they failed,” she said. “It’s a disgrace.”
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