NCYL Calls on Justice Dept to Investigate Dangers, Deficiencies in Texas Youth Facilities
NCYL has joined Texas Appleseed, Advocacy Inc., and the Center for Public Representation in calling for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into reports of violence, improper use of restraints, and program deficiencies in 10 secure lockdown facilities operated by the Texas Youth Commission (TYC).
These 10 facilities house about 2,000 juveniles, and most are located far from major urban centers, making it difficult to recruit teachers and other staff. Interviews conducted at these facilities, along with information from TYC records obtained through open records requests, document accounts of violence, excessive use of restraints for minor offenses, inadequate mental health care and education, and a fear for personal safety among young detainees.
The advocacy groups’ request for an investigation was put in a letter to the Justice Department’s Chief of Special Litigation, Judy Preston.
Advocates have interviewed youth in almost every secure TYC unit in the state. Chief among the complaints raised by the advocates is a breach of 14th Amendment rights caused by undue restraint or inappropriate excessive force against incarcerated youth. Teens interviewed at the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center and at the Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility in Beaumont repeatedly told advocates that they “do not feel safe,” said Texas Appleseed Legal Director Deborah Fowler.
These facilities have two of the highest rates for reports of assault by youth and staff, according to data kept by the TYC Office of Inspector General. Only one other secure facility – Crockett State School – is consistently linked to a higher number of reports of assault.
Gross deficiencies in educational programming are also a widespread problem in these youth facilities, with a high number of school days cancelled or shortened, either due to a staff shortage or youth misbehavior. In many cases, youths’ education is comprised of a series of worksheets, which advocates say undermines rehabilitation efforts.
While 37 percent of youth in TYC have serious mental health problems, a much higher percentage of youth – 48 percent – had some need for mental health treatment in TYC in 2009. As an example, the advocates’ letter cites a culture of self-injurious behavior at the Corsicana facility, in particular “serious and dangerous cutting.” Corsicana typically serves about 130 youth with perceived serious mental health issues but, as of August 6, 2010, there were only two unlicensed PhD psychologists, two licensed associate psychologists, and two unlicensed psychologist interns on staff – with one psychiatrist providing services 17 hours per week on average, according to data supplied in response to the advocates‟ open records requests.
Pat Arthur, a senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, says the problems at TYC underscore “the urgent need for community-based services, which can prevent youth from becoming incarcerated in the first place.”
Kate Walker is a law clerk at NCYL, working with attorneys Zahra Hayat and Patrick Gardner on mental health issues. A graduate of Pomona College, Kate is entering her third year at the University of Iowa College of Law.