Houston senator proposes consolidating juvenile prisons after reported ‘gang wars’
A Houston state senator known for calling criminal justice officials to the carpet floated a surprise plan Tuesday to combat “gang warfare” and persistent violence in the state’s juvenile prisons by moving all teenage inmates to a mothballed adult lockup north of Austin.
On the heels of a series of Houston Chronicle reports on continuing turmoil at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, state Sen. John Whitmire offered the proposal during a tense Senate Criminal Justice Committee meeting in Austin — and faced immediate pushback from agency officials.
Instead of working to fix the unrest and understaffing at the five existing juvenile prisons, the Houston lawmaker suggested consolidating the agency’s 850-kid population into the former Bartlett State Jail and filling the current juvenile lock-ups with geriatric prisoners from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The proposal came after Whitmire spent about an hour laying out the agency’s problems, demanding to know why officials hadn’t asked for more money, questioning their staffing figures and chastising their pushback against the Chronicle’s description of a six-day disturbance that officials contended was not a riot.
“It just sounds to me like total chaos,” Whitmire told the agency’s visibly exasperated director, Camille Cain. “I’m frustrated that you’re not reaching out to the leadership where you need help — because you need help.”
Cain, who’s been on the job just over a year, raised concerns about the idea of putting so many kids in a single facility and questioned how the already understaffed agency would find enough workers to manage a unit that size. But still, she conceded the current units are “pretty maxed” and grappling with a series of problems.
“The fact of the matter is that these facilities are not doing well,” she said, adding that smaller units with more guards would be a preferable solution.
Before jumping into the current problems at the troubled juvenile prisons, Whitmire opened with a review of the decade-old sex abuse scandal that prompted an agency name change and complete overhaul. Afterward, the department stopped holding kids on lower-level offenses, bringing down the juvenile prison population as youth shifted into county-run facilities and alternatives to incarceration.
Now, there are under 1,000 youths in state custody but the prisons are still plagued by violence and scandal. In 2017, a number of staffers were accused of having or trying to have sex with youths in their care. Cain took over as the agency’s new executive director near the start of 2018, but problems continued with a series of employee arrests, an inmate suicide, an escape, a drowning and chronic understaffing issues.
Then in November, a six-day disturbance broke out at the Gainesville facility north of Dallas when up to 40 teens blew dust in the smoke detectors to set off the fire alarms and release the unit doors. Repeatedly over the course of six days, the unruly youths got out of their dorms and ran around the sprawling campus, climbing on the roof, hiding in trees and assaulting guards and each other.
At one point, a teen grabbed hold of an officer’s keys and started opening the doors. Afterward, youths told oversight officials the disturbance stemmed from a combination of boredom, desire to protest and ongoing gang conflicts between the Crips and the Bloods.
After the Chronicle reported on the unrest, Cain fired back with a press release disputing the description of the violent mass disruption as a riot.
“At no time did the actions of the youth threaten to compromise the security of the facility,” she said in a statement at the time. “I do not say this to minimize the seriousness of these events; I do it to set an inaccurate record straight.”
Arrests and assaults
During Tuesday’s meeting, Whitmire raised concerns about other issues at the state lockups, including widespread marijuana use and problems with kids tattooing themselves and each other with gang signs. One teen at Gainesville ended up with an infection after inking himself using a staple, while another said he’d gotten tattooed using a needle smuggled in by a staffer.
Many of the problems, officials said, start with a small portion of the population. The Office of the Inspector General arrested 92 kids for assault during the last fiscal year. Together, those youths accounted for about 5,000 uses of force during their time in the state’s juvenile lock-ups.
And the agency saw more than 281 workman’s compensation claims stemming from incidents of youth aggression in 2018. Those injuries, Cain said, can exacerbate the existing understaffing issues.
After questioning discrepancies in staffing figures given by the agency when compared to those given by oversight officials, Whitmire demanded to know why the department hadn’t asked for more money to bump up officer salaries as a means to combat low staffing levels. According to one state report, he said, some staff are forced to work 17-hour shifts, and one officer urinated on herself because there was no one to relieve her so she could go to the bathroom. Three of the facilities are only 75 percent staffed — if no one calls out sick.
“Money won’t solve that,” Cain said, pointing out that 40 percent of new hires quit within the first six months. “If you take a job at a certain price point and quit four months later, it’s not the money that made you quit.”
But despite disagreements about the specific problems and the best solutions, both agency officials and lawmakers agreed on the need for “immediate” action. Cain advocated sending some youths to contract facilities and working to reduce the number of kids sent to juvenile prison every year.
Whitmire, on the other hand, pushed for making the former state jail into a juvenile facility where kids could get programming in a more controlled environment. At the same time, the state could shift elderly adult inmates to the air-conditioned juvenile prisons.
Though she raised repeated concerns about that plan, Cain said she was “open to discussion” on the matter, which could come up again as soon as Friday when the agency holds its bimonthly board meeting.