|Lawmakers livid over reports of coercion, extortion at Giddings youth lockup|
|Wednesday, 18 April 2012 11:12|
By Mike Ward for Statesman.com
TEXAS--Two legislative architects of Texas' sweeping reforms in juvenile justice after a sex-abuse scandal five years are fuming over a new report that questions security and safety at the Giddings State School.
The report includes allegations that youths are being "bought and owned" by other youths for cigarettes, illicit drugs and money at the lockup about 50 miles east of Austin.
The nine-page investigative report by Ombudsman Debbie Unruh that legislative leaders received on Tuesday lists an array of other issues: Youth ringleaders are "controlling the culture on this campus," staff have a lack of control over youths, youths have refused to leave security detention for fear of their safety, and bullying and extortion of food are common.
In the report, agency officials said they have identified five ringleaders, including one youth who was caught on a security camera stealing food from another youth. Random drug tests and dorm searches have been initiated to curb contraband trafficking, the report states.
Though officials with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department say they are actively addressing the serious issues raised in the report, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire and House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden said stronger, more immediate action is warranted.
"This situation is totally unacceptable and unbelievable, after everything we've been through with this agency," Whitmire said. "Youths are obviously in danger there, when you have a state report saying they are being bought and owned, bullied, are afraid — at an agency that was supposed to have been cleaned up, that has gotten tens of millions of dollars in the past few years so things like this won't happen."
Madden echoed that sentiment. "It doesn't appear we're controlling the youth there, that we're allowing the victimization of youth. That has to be stopped immediately."
He and Whitmire were among the key authors of sweeping reform legislation that overhauled youth corrections programs in Texas starting in 2007.
The Juvenile Justice Department is the months-old agency that replaced the Juvenile Probation Commission and the scandal-plagued Texas Youth Commission that operated Giddings. The former director of the Youth Commission, Cherie Townsend, now heads the department.
Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the department, noted that the issue of youths being "bought and sold" at Giddings was never reported previously to authorities. He said the agency has a "zero-tolerance policy" for abuse of incarcerated youths and that leaders are confident that Giddings residents are "safe and secure."
Even so, Whitmire said he plans to convene a public hearing of his committee in May to demand answers.
Five years ago a sex-abuse scandal and cover-up at the former Texas Youth Commission sparked sweeping reforms that remade Texas' juvenile corrections system.
The reforms included cutting by two-thirds the number of youths incarcerated in state-run lockups, shifting from a system of remote lockups to community-based rehabilitation programs closer to home, an independent ombudsman to monitor conditions, and the closure of six state lockups.
"If the people who are running this agency can't stop this, then we need to get some people in there who can," Whitmire said. "We closed several other units where things like this were going on ... and if we can't fix Giddings, then we should board it up."
Release of the report comes as the latest in a series of reported problems at the lockup — from last September, when a youth offender stabbed a female correctional officer, to management issues that have kept top Austin officials at Giddings for months to a recent survey of more than 100 youths at Giddings by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition who reported their highest concern was being assaulted by other youths.
Hurley did not specify the management issues that had been the focus of recent attention at Giddings.
The Giddings lockup is the largest of the agency's six remaining juvenile prisons and holds some of the toughest offenders. Seven other lockups were shuttered by the Legislature after the sex-abuse scandal brought a shift to community-based rehabilitation programs.
Hurley said the agency has been making progress in correcting the issues detailed in the report. Superintendent Stan DeGerolami retired in March and has been replaced by Alan Michel, previously the agency's director of community residential programs, Hurley said.
Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the new superintendent at Giddings State School. His name is Alan Michel.