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Texas teens embark on an idealistic quest to shut down the state’s last five youth prisons

Teens protest.JPG
Sergio Flores
The Texas Tribune
Members of the Finish the 5 Coalition march to the Texas Capitol on Jan. 10, 2023. The youth-led group gathered to advocate for closing youth prisons in Texas.

Spurred by reports of inhumane conditions at Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities, Austin-area teenagers are lobbying the Legislature to reform the system.

Brimming with adrenaline, determination and wide-eyed optimism, a group of teenagers gathered outside the state Capitol last week, ready to take their first steps into the underbelly of Texas politics.

Most had been under the iconic Pink Dome only for school field trips. But on the first day of the Texas legislative session, the dozen or so high schoolers and recent graduates were eager to take on a more active role: demanding their elected representatives address the ongoing crisis within the state’s youth prisons.

Last year, The Texas Tribune reported on severe understaffing in the prisons that routinely left children inside cells alone for up to 23 hours a day, forcing them to use water bottles and food trays as toilets. Almost half of the nearly 600 kids in the prisons had been on suicide watch.

In response, the Austin-area teens joined up with a local criminal justice reform group to create a new advocacy campaign. Named Finish the 5, the youth-led coalition plans to spend the next five months at the state Capitol, urging lawmakers to close Texas’ five remaining juvenile prisons.

“If we as youth are not standing in solidarity with our fellow youth who are experiencing violence at the hands of the state, then who will stand for them?” Krupali Kumar, the 19-year-old co-founder of the Austin Liberation Youth Movement, shouted into a microphone last Tuesday at the Capitol’s southern gate.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s prisons have been entrenched in repeated scandals of sexual abuse, physical abuse and other mistreatment for decades. But they’ve also changed significantly after such crises in the past.

After a sexual abuse scandal in 2007, the agency was rebranded and restructured to merge with local juvenile justice systems. A new focus aimed to keep kids in trouble closer to home under county supervision, largely in probation or diversion programs. Following the policy shift and a drop in juvenile arrests, far fewer kids were sent to state lockups, and the number of youth prisons shrank from 13 to the remaining five, located mainly in rural areas.

State officials have previously dismissed ideas to close more, however, because the hundreds of youth still detained there are often the most difficult to manage and care for, often because of violent behavior, severe mental health needs or both.

The push by the Finish the 5 campaign, led by the young people and social justice advocacy group Texas Center for Justice and Equity, proposes phasing out the five prisons by 2027. Instead, the prison funding would go to counties to better handle difficult youth populations, as well as implement better intervention and prevention programming to keep kids out of cells in the first place.

Sergio Flores
The Texas Tribune
First: Members of the Finish the 5 Coalition navigate their way to lawmakers’ offices on the first day of the legislative session. Last: The activists armed themselves with policy briefs to pass out to interested passersby and legislative aides.

Though closing all juvenile prisons would be a dramatic change, the young activists are hopeful the dire conditions will propel substantive reforms, similar to what happened after the 2007 scandal. Big changes are especially up for grabs since TJJD this year is undergoing a decennial review for lawmakers to decide whether and how to continue its existence.

So far, the agency’s response to the crisis has largely been to implement emergency raises and push for more salary funding to entice new employees and help retain some of its fleeing workforce.

During a bustling opening day at the Capitol, the young activists spent their time chanting into megaphones, passing out flyers to curious passersby and cramming into lawmakers’ offices to nervously pitch their campaign. While Kumar, a debate camp attendee, confidently orated at the microphone and spoke with ease to political party members walking by, others focused their eyes on their typed speeches and spoke with soft voices.

“I’m 16, oh wait, no, I just turned 17,” chuckled Mya Leger, her long, thin braids trailing down her back. Having grown up in public housing, Leger joined the coalition after seeing many of her peers die or go to jail. She said low-income kids weren’t given many other options.

With either shaky or steady voices, the teens repeated a similar sentiment: confidence they could enact real change in this space, even if they can’t get everything they are seeking.

“Honestly, it makes me really nervous, but also very excited,” said Amani Ahmad, an 18-year-old college freshman, laughing off her nerves about lobbying lawmakers and testifying in future committee hearings.

“It feels like we actually have an avenue to people that are in charge, and that feels so much more powerful than just organizing from the outside,” she added, having participated in protests with Kumar for other social justice causes.

Elle Johnson, whose father was in Texas youth prisons and was recently sent to the adult prison system, echoed the thought.

Teen protest 2.JPG
Sergio Flores
The Texas Tribune
First: Unable to snag seats in the House gallery on the Legislature’s opening day, the teens gather in a committee room to watch the session begin. Last: Elle Johnson speaks about her experience with the criminal justice system at the outdoor rotunda of the Texas Capitol.

“I’m confident that even if we don’t close [the prisons], we’ll change them. And that for right now is enough,” the 18-year-old said.

Donning a campaign T-shirt and pigtail braids, Johnson said she joined the movement to break the cycle of incarceration for herself and for her 4-year-old brother, who will grow up to be a Black man in a world “so cruel to men of color and people of color in general.”

“To know that I could help set up a system that would care for him rather than punish him was really a motivator,” she said.

Other young people without personal connections to the criminal justice system also joined the fight Tuesday, including 17-year-old Eden Schimanek. With sparkly eyeshadow and a bright pink fanny pack, the high schooler said she got into social justice by watching crime shows with her mom, and hoped to work for the Innocence Project after college.

“Two years ago, I had no idea that organizations such as Austin Liberation Youth Movement or TCJE even existed, or of the presence of the five youth prisons in Texas,” Schimanek said into a microphone at the Capitol gate. “After recognizing how ignorant I was on the topic, I sat down and I did my research and I became engrossed in this movement. I could just not grapple with the fact that kids my age are in cells not seeing daylight for 23 hours, or that they were kids my age, using water bottles and food trays to go to the bathroom.”

No bill has yet been filed to close the youth prisons, but the Finish the 5 campaign has been talking with Democratic state Reps. James Talarico and Jarvis Johnson, according to TCJE policy and advocacy director Alycia Castillo. Talarico said a bill will be filed, but the details are not yet worked out.

The youth are focused. After their opening day at the Capitol, they plan to continue talks with lawmakers and other stakeholders behind the scenes, as well as publicly testify when any related bills are brought up in legislative committees.

Walking into the Capitol on Tuesday, Johnson’s positivity radiated off of her. She felt powered not only by her mission for her brother and so many like him, but for her younger peers she could inspire to take a front seat with their government.

Teens prortest3.JPG
Sergio Flores
The Texas Tribune
Teens cram into state Rep. James Talarico’s office to make their first pitch to close youth prisons.

“When I was here for a school trip, there were actually protests going on outside,” she reflected, her braids bouncing in time with her steps. “I didn’t know you could do that. And it was so impactful.”

She hoped kids could see her now in her advocacy, that she could create a similar experience for them.

“It sparks that thought process of like, ‘Wow, we can like, change things,’” she said. “Especially since we look like them.”

Jolie McCullough develops data interactives and news apps and reports on criminal justice issues for the Texas Tribune. She came to the Tribune in early 2015 from the Albuquerque Journal, where her work as a web designer and developer earned her national recognition. She was at the Journal for four years and specialized in interactive maps and data-driven special projects. She is a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; while there, she interned as a reporter and online producer at the Arizona Republic and served as the web editor of the student-run newspaper, the State Press.