Almost 600 Texas youth are trapped in a juvenile prison system on the brink of collapse
The agency is so understaffed that teens have reported spending up to 23 hours locked in their cells, using water bottles to go to the bathroom. A staggering number have hurt themselves or been placed on suicide watch.
Its five lockups are dangerously understaffed, an ongoing problem that worsened dramatically last year when its turnover rate hit more than 70%. The state has desperately tried to recruit employees, but most new hires are gone within six months.
Teachers and caseworkers routinely work in security roles so the prisons’ nearly 600 youth can get out of their cells to go to the bathroom or take showers. Still, children have reported being left to use water bottles as makeshift toilets.
On weekends, youth are often locked alone in cramped cells with only a mounted bookshelf and a thin mattress on a concrete block for up to 23 hours a day. The lucky ones have a small window to the outside.
The agency has largely stopped accepting newly sentenced teenagers from crowded county detention centers, fearing it can’t even protect the children already in its care.
And more and more, children are hurting themselves — sometimes severely — out of distress or as a way to get attention in their isolation. Nearly half of those locked in the state’s juvenile prisons this year have been on suicide watch.
The emergency is the predictable result of a state agency that has been entrenched in crisis for more than a decade. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department is under federal investigation for an alleged pattern of mistreatment and abuse, and it has gone through several iterations of major and moderate reform following scandals marked by sexual abuse and violence, including a full restructuring in 2011.
But the agency has never escaped its problem of chronic understaffing, exacerbating systemic failures and spurring a vicious cycle of worsening conditions for imprisoned children, as well as more difficult work and longer hours for the staff that remains. The agency consistently loses detention officers at a faster rate than any other position in Texas government, outpacing other hard-to-fill jobs like adult prison officers and caseworkers for Child Protective Services.
The staffing crisis only worsened following the pandemic and the subsequent wave of resignations throughout the country. And although agency leaders believe the flood of departures has eased, they are left clinging to startlingly few workers. In June, less than half of the agency’s officer positions were filled by active employees.
Ultimately, the answer comes down to money. TJJD leaders and independent legislative analysts have said the agency first needs more money to hire and retain officers, while juvenile justice advocates and lawmakers have pushed for closing the state’s five prisons and investing in better care at the local level, or creating smaller, narrowly focused facilities in urban areas with more mental health resources.
But while the governor and lawmakers have denounced agency failures, replaced leadership and demanded change after abuse reports in recent years, their outcries are not typically reflected in the budget.
Unlike adult prisons and Child Protective Services, TJJD was not spared from a 5% budget cut ordered by state leaders at the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, the agency said it temporarily eliminated prevention and intervention services that juvenile justice experts say are the best way to keep children out of the criminal justice system.
The Legislature last year also rejected agency requests to, among other things, fund more services for detained children in suicidal crises or with other emergency mental health needs. And four times during the pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislature have taken away money the agency received in federal coronavirus relief funds to spend on other state expenses, including Abbott's ever-expanding, multibillion-dollar border security mission.
TJJD leaders were able to implement emergency 15% raises for staff earlier this year by postponing reentry programs and using savings from unfilled positions. But they said salaries are still too low, and the current economy puts them in competition for workers with far less strenuous jobs, like cashier and retail positions. Shandra Carter, the department’s interim leader, said she can’t attract and retain staff because the state hasn’t provided enough resources for the department to fulfill its responsibilities.
“The first step in addressing these shortages and moving us out of survival mode is to provide a competitive salary,” Carter said in an email to The Texas Tribune last month. “Having the necessary number of employees to ensure safety and supervision of youth will allow for enhanced training, opportunities for leadership development, and an increased ability to safely manage the milieu.”
(Carter took the helm of the agency in April, after its longest-serving director quit without notice on the same day Abbott most recently pulled the agency’s coronavirus relief funding for his border operation. The former director has not publicly given a reason for her departure.)
Advocates, agency leaders and legislative analysts acknowledge the crisis within TJJD has reached a breaking point. Alhough they have differing views on how to break out of a system of failure, they agree that without meaningful change — and funding — the next step for Texas’ juvenile prisons could be “systemic collapse,” according to an agency report last month.
“People are unwilling to imagine a different way, but clearly we need to,” said Brett Merfish of Texas Appleseed, a social justice advocacy group that has sought to phase out state-run juvenile prisons by investing in local systems instead.
“What is it going to take to say we need to do this?” she asked, noting the emergencies that are already taking place. “Is it going to be kids left in their cells for 22 hours a day? Is it going to take suicide rates going up by X%?”
Texas’ youth prisons have changed significantly over the past two decades, most often spurred by repeated reports of sexual and physical abuse.
Following a sexual abuse scandal at one prison in 2007, the agency was rebranded and restructured to merge with local juvenile justice systems. After similar crimes made headlines a decade later, Abbott replaced much of the agency’s leadership and provided emergency funding and Texas Rangers to further investigate criminal behavior among staff.
In recent years, a new focus on keeping kids in trouble closer to home and a drop in juvenile arrests have led to far fewer kids being sent to a shrinking number of state-run prisons, a feat celebrated by both juvenile justice advocates and state leaders.
But the children who remain in the state’s five prisons are generally the most difficult to manage and care for, often because of violent behavior, severe mental health needs or both. The needs of the detainees have changed, and providing adequate safety and rehabilitation requires more resources.
The facilities, which are in remote parts of the state with small labor pools, struggle to find and keep qualified mental health professionals and security staff.
“The large campuses in rural Texas, some of them have 200 and 300 acres,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “That was fine when you ran them as a school for nonviolent, disturbed kids. But they have not been modified … for youth that have committed more serious offenses.”
He noted that fights, sometimes gang-related, tend to break out when teens from separate dorms are moved around the campuses for things like education or recreation.
And as staff flee for easier work with the same pay, kids can be locked up almost all day, often exacerbating mental illnesses. Without at least two officers in a dorm of 16 detainees, teens have to remain in their individual cells.
The short-staffing impacts every piece of the youths’ prison lives.
Basketball and football seasons have been canceled. A popular program for imprisoned children to foster and train shelter dogs is on pause. Often, meals are eaten in dorms instead of the cafeteria, and students get work packets instead of being taught in classrooms.
Amy Mason’s 17-year-old son has been at the Giddings Unit, about 60 miles east of Austin, for about a year. She said he no longer can get out of his cell on weekends to call her or, sometimes, even use the bathroom.
“My son told me, ‘Mom, I don’t have any water or anything to drink because I’m having to urinate in my water bottles,” Mason said.
Other children at the Gainesville prison in North Texas have told state inspectors, who visit the five prisons once a month, that they have used cups or water bottles as makeshift toilets on weekends, according to inspection reports. An officer said kids were given extra cups and bottles specifically for this purpose. TJJD officials called the practice “entirely unacceptable” and said it had not been reported recently.
Under the harsh conditions, children are also more often engaging in suicidal behavior and self-harm, out of depression, protest or both.
Since 2018, Texas’ youth prison population has shrunk by more than a third, but the number of times teens were put on suicide watch jumped by nearly 50%, according to TJJD suicide assessment data obtained by the Tribune. If a teen is on suicide watch, an officer is at minimum required to check on them, often in their cell, at least every 10 minutes, according to agency policy.
This year, 45% of those held in Texas’ juvenile lockups have been on suicide watch, a percentage that has steadily grown over several years.
In the last year, teens have forced springs from pens into their necks or pieces of metal into their urethras, according to inspection reports. Many have used ligatures to strangle themselves.
Some told inspectors they hurt themselves as a means to get relief from their isolation. They were distraught about being left in their cells so much of the time and said if multiple people in a dorm were placed on suicide watch, it would typically lead to a second officer being assigned to them — meaning they could get out of their cells.
“Usually when people talk about suicides, it’s a cry for help,” said Camille Gibson, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center at Prairie View A&M University. “And if they don’t have staff, and they’re being locked up for several hours a day on top of whatever problems they have going on, I’m not surprised they’d be making a cry for help.”
Last month, Giddings’ medical staff said several of the unit’s fewer than 100 boys had been taken to the emergency room this year after suicide attempts.
Having to more often resort to basic supervision of teens without additional programming or activities has raised not only suicidal behavior but aggressive tendencies, which in turn leads to even more employees quitting, according to a legislative analysis.
The result is a lack of control over the workforce. Employees regularly skip their shifts, knowing the agency would be hard pressed to fire them, officials reported at an advisory council meeting. And new staff are often thrown into the job without adequate training just to fill the gaps.
“They’re kind of grabbing any and everybody who is willing to do the work,” said one officer who asked to remain anonymous because he was not permitted to speak to the media.
He began working at a youth prison this summer and said he was taken out of training after only a week to work in the prison’s control room after a COVID-19 outbreak sickened most of the staff. The agency seemed to be grasping to put bodies in roles, he said, and often staff don’t know how long they’re working or what they’re doing until the last minute.
“They let us know on Friday that on Monday we would be working the [control room], and they gave us no training on it,” he said. “They weren’t sure where we were going to be or what we were going to do until literally we were walking out the door.”
Carter acknowledged that new hires are given the minimum training necessary in the staffing emergency. She said employees are quickly placed in authoritative positions “out of sheer need.”
“The instability, lack of safety, and low morale causes significant churn of new hires, furthering the crisis,” she said via email. “Frustration and fatigue run high which can contribute to staff making poor decisions. A lack of necessary staff also decreases peer monitoring that comes naturally when a full team is working together. This can increase opportunities for predatory staff to engage in abuse or exploitation.”
The agency in July reported the arrests of three officers on official oppression charges for allegedly using excessive force against detained teens.
“We got to have a plan”
Last month, Carter halted all intake of children into TJJD from local detention centers, which have also recently struggled with maintaining employees. Texas’ youth prisons couldn’t take any more children, Carter said, because the state agency wouldn’t be able to guarantee their safety. Since then, the agency has accepted a handful of children as spots open up, but more than 100 children remain in county detention centers waiting to be moved into the state system.
The state of crisis has led the agency to scrap planned programs to help teens avoid being arrested again when they are released, and it canceled therapeutic programming targeting violent behavior. The intensive program, which aims to teach teens how to manage their emotions and reactions to stress while keeping them out of isolation, is one of three anti-violence programs that coincided with a 33% reduction in acts of aggression from 2020 to 2021, the agency reported last year.
One local juvenile probation chief responded to an agency survey saying county employees who work in juvenile justice don’t believe kids “are getting anything from TJJD commitment but incarceration.”
Despite the loss of programming and safety in the units, Abbott has not personally spoken out on the move to halt intake this month. When asked about the crisis last month, his staff said that the governor considers safety at TJJD a priority, while defending repeated transfers of money away from the department by saying it had a net-zero impact on the budget.
On Monday, an Abbott spokesperson said the governor will support TJJD’s “request to increase the salaries needed to hire and retain a qualified workforce” when lawmakers set a new budget next year.
For agency leaders and legislative analysts conducting a decennial review of whether TJJD should continue to exist under the state’s Sunset Review process, one answer to TJJD’s problems is more money from the state. The agency gets about $130 million a year for its state-run lockups and halfway houses. Another nearly $190 million goes toward community services, including probation, parole, and other oversight and administrative roles.
The agency was able to make permanent the emergency 15% pay raise implemented in April for all officers, bumping starting annual salaries up from around $36,200 a year to $41,700. Before the raise, Carter said, the entry-level pay for an officer at Giddings was comparable to working at the nearby Buc-ee’s as a cashier.
The new salary puts TJJD starting salaries about on par with adult prison officers.
In the last few months, agency officials say they have been able to “stanch the bleeding” of officers fleeing the job. But the amount of remaining employees is startlingly low, raising the risk of burnout as teachers and case managers continue to work security roles and mandatory overtime shifts continue.
Staffing data obtained by the Tribune showed there was another jump in officers quitting in June. TJJD said the loss was offset by new hires.
In their routine review of the functions and efficacy of the agency, Sunset analysts said lawmakers need to commit to investing in TJJD, allowing it to pull itself out of crisis by retaining staff and continuing to transition toward keeping troubled children closer to home.
“Only then can Texas make the vital transition toward fewer large, scandal-ridden state facilities in the future,” the state report said.
Although the agency has focused primarily on increasing officer salaries as a crisis measure, Whitmire and advocates are pushing for more substantial change. Simply investing more money into a failing agency, they said, will lead to more failure.
“They want more money for doing the same old, same old,” Whitmire said. “We got to have a plan.”
The senator hopes that, with a Sunset Review and a windfall of money for lawmakers to manage next year, the agency can finally begin the move away from large, rural facilities and invest in at least two smaller, urban lockups and a specialized mental health facility.
His vision doesn’t go as far as that of juvenile justice advocates, who have pushed to close all state-run youth prisons within 10 years. Several organizations hope the government can instead provide necessary treatment and services in smaller facilities managed by teens’ home communities.
“TJJD has serious problems, and serious problems require serious and systemic reform,” read a June letter to legislative analysts from Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas, Texas Network of Youth Services and Texans Care for Children. “Raising salaries is a short term patch and alone will not allow for TJJD to shift its focus from crisis management to the worthy tasks of bolstering regionalization and diversion amongst the counties.”
For Gibson at Prairie View A&M, the biggest question is whether policymakers will decide in next year’s legislative session to invest in preventive treatment, providing care to families and children before they are introduced to the juvenile justice system.
“This is a problem that has been developing over years,” she said. “We just need to decide that this is important. It’s not a particularly flashy subject right now, but if crime is a problem, then this is important.”