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In Texas youth prisons, children trapped in their cells use bottles and lunch trays for toilets

At Giddings State School, a Texas juvenile prison, youths reported regularly soiling their cells this summer because there weren’t enough officers to take them to the bathroom.
Jolie McCullough
The Texas Tribune
At Giddings State School, a Texas juvenile prison, youths reported regularly soiling their cells this summer because there weren’t enough officers to take them to the bathroom.

Gov. Greg Abbott largely remained silent as dangerous conditions caused by a lack of staff persisted at Texas juvenile facilities during the summer.

Throughout this summer, children in Texas’ youth prison system have repeatedly been trapped in their cells, forced to urinate in water bottles and defecate on the floor.

For months, children in at least two of five state lockups reported regularly lacking access to toilets as the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s workforce shrunk below dangerous levels. Calls for immediate action by juvenile justice advocates and dozens of lawmakers to address the crisis have largely gone unanswered by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Last month, the governor’s office said the safety of staff and youth at TJJD was a top priority for him, touted the agency’s recent pay raise — funded largely by agency officials siphoning cash from the plethora of vacant officer positions — and promised to support further salary boosts during next year’s legislative session. His office did not immediately respond to questions for this story.

In May and June, more than a dozen detained youths at the Giddings State School said officers often didn’t let them out of their cells to use the bathroom between 4:30 p.m. and 8 a.m. during the week due to short staffing, according to state inspection reports recently obtained by The Texas Tribune. On the weekends, without teachers and case managers to fill in for vacant officer positions, youths were sometimes kept in their cells 22 hours a day.

The children had no choice but to use water bottles, milk cartons, lunch trays or pieces of paper as makeshift toilets, they told officials from the Independent Ombudsman for the Texas Juvenile Justice System during monthly inspections.

It’s inhumane, a youth told inspectors. “Even animals are let out,” another said.

The Giddings prison, east of Austin, detains about 100 boys, including those with severe mental health needs. In June, the ombudsman reported that only 60 officers out of 140 needed were available to work at the lockup.

At the Gainesville State School in North Texas, youth reported in May that staff gave them cups to use as toilets in their cells.

“The youths’ right to be free from psychological harm appeared to have been violated,” inspectors noted in their June report from the Giddings prison.

The Tribune has previously reported on the ongoing failings of TJJD, which is under federal investigation for claims of mistreatment, but the new records provide more detail on the troubling conditions children endured when the agency’s staffing fell to exceedingly dangerous levels this summer. As of July, less than half of the prisons’ officer positions were actively filled, according to a state report.

Last year, the turnover rate for detention officers hit 70%, and although the state has desperately tried to recruit new employees, most new hires leave within six months. Without enough staff to supervise the youth, children locked in their cells have increasingly engaged in self-harm and suicidal behaviors. Nearly half of the youth in the prison system this year have been on suicide watch.

Ombudsman reports from May to July at the state’s five youth prisons detailed several instances of self-harm behavior, including at least two that required hospital care.

In written responses to the ombudsman reports, TJJD officials said dangerous short-staffing caused the failures in getting youth bathroom access. Officers had to choose between letting a child out of his cell, despite safety guidance stating two employees need to be present in a dorm to do so, or letting him defecate or urinate on his cell floor.

“These unacceptable and horrible instances are the result of the dangerously low staffing numbers directly affecting the lives and well-being of youth, and run counter to the structured and rehabilitative environment TJJD strives to provide,” the agency said in July.

On Monday, TJJD spokesperson Barbara Kessler said that despite the “significant staffing shortfall,” detainees have been able to get out their cells for education and therapy on the vast majority of weekdays.

At Giddings, where the situation appeared most dire, the agency responded in June by creating a roving team of five employees to move from building to building on nights and weekends for the purpose of getting two staffers in a dorm to allow bathroom access or to assist with other needs. Kessler said all five prisons are now required to have a five-person team for this reason.

Still, four days after the new plan was enacted, a youth told inspectors he still had to wait one or two hours to use the bathroom, but couldn’t hold it.

“[The youth] defecated on a piece of paper in his cell, and was given a plastic bag in which to place the paper,” inspectors wrote in the June report. “He explained that approximately 30 minutes later, a second staff member arrived, let him out of his cell, and he ‘finished pooping’ in a toilet.”

After an investigation into the reports of youth urinating and defecating in their cells, TJJD responded in July that two employees had been disciplined. Kessler said Monday that the staffers were written up “for failing to assure roving teams were available to dorms on lockdown and failing to escalate concerns to their supervisors.” One of the employees has since been removed from their position, Kessler said.

In late June, the agency also began shifting detainees to better match staffing availability. This included transferring 12 boys from Giddings to a youth prison in the Rio Grande Valley, which emptied a dorm at the Giddings lockup.

Days later, the agency announced it would be taking the drastic step of halting the intake of sentenced children at its facilities, putting further strain on county juvenile detention centers. Shortly afterward, the agency again began accepting a few children into its facilities on a limited basis.

By July, the most recent month ombudsman reports were available for TJJD’s five prisons, things appeared to be getting better. Agency officials hoped the emergency 15% raise, made permanent that month, would help to recruit and retain employees. Children throughout the five lockups had more time on regular schedules compared to previous months, though lockdowns persisted, according to an agency report.

Kessler said some youth who were forced to use water bottles or other receptacles as toilets during the worst of the staffing crisis earlier this year continue the practice now as a convenience rather than a necessity.

At Giddings, inspectors reported that the dorm closure eased staffing needs, with kids left in their cells on lockdown less often during the week — though on weekends children still remained in their cells almost all day.

In August, a 17-year-old at Giddings told his mother that he still used his water bottle as a toilet on weekends. On Monday, the mother said her son was still having the same issues.

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.