The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For more than a century, Texas youth prisons have fostered abuse

The institutions have proven immune to reform because abuse is imbedded in their very structures

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The Department of Justice recently announced a civil rights investigation into widespread reports of “physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents, excessive use of chemical restraints and excessive use of isolation” in five youth prisons operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Citing reports that 11 staff members had been arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing youths, spokeswoman Kristen Clarke described “reports of youths being choked, body-slammed, pepper-sprayed and kicked,” as well as two “apparent suicides” of youths in custody.

This investigation comes on the heels of a similar scandal 15 years ago. Despite the sweeping changes that followed, children in Texas youth prisons remain at risk of abuse. In fact, abuse has been the hallmark of these institutions for more than 130 years, despite many efforts at reform. That’s because the prison itself, and the dynamics it fosters, forms the basis for abuse, and unless we rethink the use of youth prisons entirely, it will continue.

Opened in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Texas’s youth prisons were once known as “reform schools” or “training schools.” Like their adult counterparts, these large facilities were in rural areas far from the urban communities that most “juvenile delinquents” called home. This differed little from other states, which also opened juvenile training schools in isolated places, with little funding or oversight, in response to rising youth populations in fast-growing industrial cities. Progressive-era reformers believed incarcerating delinquent youths in rural areas removed them from bad influences and ensured public safety.

These isolated facilities quickly became notorious for abuse and brutality. Founded in 1889, the Gatesville State School for Boys maintained a cemetery on its grounds for at least two dozen boys who died in custody. One of the more notorious deaths occurred in 1921, when a guard strangled 15-year-old Dell Thames in front of two other boys. So fearsome was Gatesville’s reputation that the filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille chose it as the location for his 1929 feature film “The Godless Girl,” which portrayed juvenile inmates performing field labor and being beaten by guards.

In 1948, the constant drumbeat of abuse complaints led the Texas legislature to appoint a special commission to investigate its training schools. Journalistic exposés of other large custodial institutions like mental hospitals created an opening for would-be juvenile justice reformers. The commission’s work coincided with society’s growing focus on the “teenager” as a distinctive figure who could be expected to push boundaries and rebel against authority. This new understanding encouraged a less punitive approach to youthful misbehavior.

When experts and reformers visited the facilities, they recommended replacing them entirely with smaller facilities located near metropolitan areas. In addition to removing the “stigma of prison,” such facilities would place youths closer to their families and enable the state to bring in professionals from the fields of child welfare, education and mental health — a community-based vision similar to today’s group homes and halfway houses.

But the legislature rejected this advice. Heeding the demands of the politically well-connected leaders of the state’s youth prisons, who used the specter of Black and Mexican American criminality to insist that young people required imprisonment, Texas instead expanded its construction of evermore sprawling, prisonlike facilities, sometimes strategically located in the electoral districts of key legislators. Abuse scandals continued to surface in television and newspaper reports.

In 1952, a Houston lawyer filed an appeal on behalf of a 16-year-old girl who had spent nearly 200 days in isolation at the Gainesville State School after being held down by male guards and forcibly sedated with barbiturates. Another girl, who had escaped the same facility, told a reporter for the Austin Statesman, “I’ll kill myself before returning.”

In 1964, a group of parents and ex-staffers wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Gov. John Connally, describing physical abuse and nonexistent medical care and likening the state’s training schools to “a concentration camp.” During the next several years, the Texas Rangers, the FBI and both houses of the Texas legislature investigated the state’s training schools, to no avail; political leaders, including some whose districts housed the training schools, repeatedly thwarted reform efforts.

The failure of state authorities to act on decades of documented atrocities led youths, parents and advocates to seek a remedy in the federal courts. The landmark class-action case, Morales v. Turman (1974), provided the most thorough excavation to date of abusive practices at the state’s training schools.

Psychologists, social workers and prison consultants visited the facilities, reviewed haphazardly maintained records and interviewed staff and youths. Judge William Wayne Justice toured the Mountain View School for Boys, where he encountered bruised, bloodied and terrified incarcerated boys. Howard Ohmart, a corrections expert who formerly served on Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement, commented, “We have never seen anything quite as depressing, so deliberately designed to humiliate, to degrade, and to debase. It is surely oppression in its simplest and most direct form.”

That oppression extended broadly. Morales v. Turman revealed the excessive use of isolation, psychotropic drugs, punitive labor details and exotic forms of corporal punishment. In addition, investigators documented stigmatizing psychological abuses such as punishments for speaking Spanish, racial and sexual slurs, and the use of “punk dorms” for juvenile inmates labeled “homosexual” by guards. Pregnant young women at Gainesville testified that they had been forced to take pills that induced abortions. One boy described the hazing ritual administered to “fresh fish” newly arrived to Gatesville; he was beaten into unconsciousness by other boys for the amusement of adult guards.

In the end, Judge Justice issued a detailed set of orders outlawing abuses and requiring adequate medical, psychological and educational services at these facilities. The entire leadership of the Texas Youth Council, the state agency overseeing the facilities, resigned and was replaced by reformers. Two of the state’s prisons for boys, Gatesville and Mountain View, were transferred to the adult prison system by the end of the 1970s. The state began investing in juvenile probation and other preventive services, and the juvenile inmate population began to shrink.

Judge Justice personally supervised the state’s juvenile system until 1988, when the Morales Settlement Agreement — still legally enforced — went into effect. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA) provided funding for local and state level reforms in juvenile justice.

Yet the impact of Morales and other important federal court rulings was blunted by the persistence of structural racial disparities and renewed fears of violent juvenile crime. As the historian Elizabeth Hinton has noted, the JJDPA labeled economically vulnerable youths, disproportionately Black and Latino, as “potentially criminal,” while removing less serious middle-income offenders, predominantly White, from the formal justice system.

As the violent crime rate rose in the 1980s and 90s, a new panic ensued over “super-predators.” While this panic fueled false convictions such as that of the Central Park Five, it also drove a new round of punitive legislation and youth prison construction. Between 1990 and 1996, 40 states expanded the categories of juvenile cases that could be tried in adult court.

Texas led the way in punishing juvenile offenders. Gov. George W. Bush campaigned on getting tough on juvenile crime in 1994. In 1995, the state legislature passed the omnibus Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which expanded tough sentencing guidelines. The budget appropriated more than $200 million for the construction of new facilities — a tripling of the state’s institutional capacity — whose supporters unapologetically used the term “youth prison.” The state expanded its use of the juvenile death penalty, carrying out 13 of the 23 executions for juvenile capital offenses nationally between 1985 and 2005.

In 2007, another abuse scandal rocked Texas, resulting in such changes as the abolition of the Texas Youth Commission, the closure of over half of the state’s youth prisons, a dramatic reduction in the juvenile inmate population and a redirecting of some resources to local juvenile justice programs. Yet these didn’t stop the abuses.

It is the youth prison itself, which institutionalizes staff into guards and youths into inmates, that creates the conditions for abuse. For more than a century, the youth prison has proven immune to reform and incapable of functioning consistently as a site for rehabilitation. Only time will tell whether the latest in the long and sordid history of youth abuse scandals will lead Texas to make real changes, redirecting resources away from prisons and into community-based rehabilitation and prevention programs.