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Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — An independent advocate for adolescents confined by the troubled Texas Youth Commission is recommending the state shut down a dilapidated lockup that he calls dirty and dangerous and covered in gang graffiti.
The assessment from TYC’s independent ombudsman Will Harrell follows the sudden closure earlier this month of a privately run West Texas lockup in Coke County where officials said young offenders lived in deplorable conditions, including cells smeared with feces.
“Of all the facilities I’ve visited, Victory Field seems the least adequate,” Harrell wrote in a report shared with lawmakers Wednesday but dated before he visited Coke County. The facility is located in the North Texas town of Vernon, near the Oklahoma border.
“The (physical) plant is structurally suffering, dangerous and unclean, staff morale is low, youth are idle and agitated, programming is meager … and there is a serious understaffing and training issue,” Harrell wrote of the lockup.
TYC is expected to close more units as its youth population declines.
“If it were my decision to make, that would be one of the first ones that I would recommend closing,” he said after his testimony.
Harrell was among TYC officials testifying before members of the House Corrections Committee, which pelted Acting Executive Director Dimitria Pope with detailed questions about the agency’s progress in improving safety.
For instance, lawmakers complained about an earlier decision that Pope has now reversed that had called for using pepper spray before physically restraining a disruptive youths.Also, TYC’s plans for installing more security cameras critical to the safety of youths and staff had been set for completion next summer. Pope said that’s now moved up to March.
TYC’s troubles erupted last spring when the public learned that two administrators at a West Texas lockup were accused of molesting scores of boys in their care. A rash of sexual and physical abuse allegations followed.
“My concern is that they’re not providing the level of safety to the youths that are there that we had intended to provide,” Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said in an interview after hearing hours of testimony.
“Coke County highlights it, but in Coke County, there was a shift and definitive action once it was determined by Ms. Pope that this facility was unsafe,” Hochberg said. “The question is, what else is out there?”
Harrell brought up TYC’s Victory Field unit after lawmakers asked if there was any other TYC lockup that he felt was on par with the level of problems that led to the shuttering of the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center.
“I don’t totally agree with his assessment of Victory Field,” Pope testified, noting that children there were not forced to live in cells smeared in feces.
“I’m not saying it’s an ideal place,” she said.
Harrell said he doesn’t have the authority to order closure of Victory Field, but he hopes TYC will follow up on his preliminary findings.
For instance, there are “huge blind spots” in the security camera system with no coverage of recreation areas or behind buildings and an inability to freeze frames. Plus the monitor constantly switches, making it impossible to follow an incident unfolding, his report notes.
Talked to youths and staff
The report is based on interviews with youths and staff but not the superintendent. Harrell said he could not reach TYC’s hot line, set up so youths can report abuse allegations, from any phone at Victory Field. Plus, youths complained of staff retaliation when they file grievances.Harrell noted that youthful offenders in one volatile area can easily disable a lock on a door that leads to a blind spot containing dangerous chemicals and sharp objects. He was told by the offenders that they had used the area in the past for sexual acts, fights and tattooing.
“What concerns me also,” Harrell said in an interview, “is it is so remote that none of the kids that I met with have had a visit. Parents and community involvement with a kid while they’re in TYC is critical to their rehabilitation as well as oversight.”
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- Lawmakers pose questions about private prison oversight
- 3 fired TYC workers previously employed by GEO Group
- TYC contract-care programs face investigations
- Senate OKs overhaul of scandal-plagued TYC
- TYC facility’s closure blocks plan for all-girls unit
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