In Texas, Scandals Rock Juvenile Justice System
Thursday, April 5, 2007
AUSTIN, April 4 -- Joseph Galloway is days away from walking out of a Texas juvenile detention center where he has been held for years beyond his original sentence -- and where at age 15, he said, he endured sexual assaults by a corrections officer and a fellow inmate.
The 19-year-old never intended to tell this story, out of shame and fear of retaliation from his jailers. But he recently revealed the details to his mother, Genger, to investigators of the Texas Rangers, and now he is sharing his experiences with the public for one reason.
"I'd rather be a witness to what happened than have kids come in here and have them experience what I've experienced," Galloway said in a telephone interview from the Crockett State School in East Texas. "Nobody deserves to go through the things I went through."
Galloway is one of 550 youths who will be released from juvenile detention centers across Texas starting this week as state officials work overtime to fix a system wracked by widespread allegations of sexual and physical assaults on incarcerated children, and of coverups.
The releases, starting as early as Wednesday, include 292 youths who already have served their court-ordered incarceration -- such as Galloway -- but had their sentences extended by facility superintendents. That long-standing policy is now under scrutiny by state officials who believe some extensions may be arbitrary or simply retaliatory. The departures of 260 youths already scheduled to be released this month will be accelerated by a few weeks.
In addition, the cases of 1,000 other youths will be examined by a special panel made up of prosecutors, a juvenile prison official and representatives of civil rights groups to see if their sentence extensions were merited.
"All the kids who have completed their sentences need to be out," said Jay Kimbrough, the newly appointed conservator of the Texas Youth Commission, which operates the detention facilities across the state.
The inmate releases are the latest development in a scandal that has rocked the Texas juvenile justice system and consumed state officials and legislators since mid-February. The story of alleged sexual abuse of inmates by former top officials of the remote West Texas State School and a subsequent coverup broke in the Dallas Morning News and Texas Observer.
The exposés were followed by legislative committee testimony from Brian Burzynski, a Texas Ranger who investigated the allegations and tried futilely for two years to get the crimes prosecuted. He said -- and documents subsequently made public showed -- that he was thwarted for various reasons by TYC headquarters personnel, the Ward County district attorney, the Texas attorney general's office, the civil rights division of the Justice Department, and the U.S. attorney with jurisdiction over Pyote, west of Odessa, where the West Texas State School is located.
The alleged perpetrators -- the assistant superintendent at the facility and the school principal there -- resigned in 2005 and have never been arrested or charged. Public disclosure of the allegations prompted the state attorney general to convene a grand jury last month to consider criminal indictments.
The Texas Youth Commission houses the state's youngest inmates, 4,700 juveniles between ages 10 and 21 who are considered to be the most incorrigible, dangerous or chronic offenders. The agency operates 13 secure facilities and nine halfway houses, most in the far-flung corners of this vast state far from inmates' families. The agency's stated mission is to "fix broken children" and "to teach youth how to succeed."
Instead, the system has failed, and some cases, abused its charges, state officials agree. Jay Kimbrough, a former Texas director of homeland security and former deputy state attorney general, was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry (R) to institute immediate changes at TYC, and a special House-Senate committee is writing legislation to overhaul the troubled system.
Since late February, top agency officials, including the seven-member governing board and the executive and deputy executive directors have resigned or been fired. The superintendents of two detention facilities were recently arrested for destroying documents and for lying to police, and a guard at a third facility was just arrested and fired for assaulting a juvenile in December. The criminal backgrounds of 102 corrections officers with felony arrests and warrants on record are being reviewed.
More than 1,800 calls have poured into a hotline set up to take complaints of misconduct. Close to 300 have alleged staff-on-inmate and inmate-on-inmate sexual misconduct, and more than 350 have alleged physical assaults by staff members on juveniles.
Kimbrough said the culture and organization of the agency with remote facilities ruled like fiefdoms by autonomous superintendents, little oversight by headquarters staff in Austin, poorly trained corrections officers and inadequate staff-to-inmate ratios have contributed to the agency's entrenched problems. Before the latest revelations, a South Texas juvenile detention facility was already under Justice Department scrutiny because of a 2004 inmate riot and a level of youth-on-youth assaults determined to be five times the national average in similar facilities.
"The reformation of this institution will be made from the ground up," Kimbrough said. "All the organizational and cultural changes have to occur, but fundamentally, the logical changes that have to occur are proper staff ratios and [adequate] electronic surveillance."
The population in Texas juvenile facilities has tripled over the past decade partly because lawmakers have been enacting tougher criminal penalties against minors and elevating certain juvenile offenses to criminal acts, said one civil rights advocate working on the TYC reform effort.
"Texas has tried to be tougher on crime than any other nation in the world, and as a result our prisons, including TYC, are saturated," said Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU. "What you see at the West Texas State School is the predictable outcome of a saturated system."