When Sen. Juan Hinojosa held hearings last summer about a riot at a TYC facility in the Rio Grande Valley, he learned enough about the agency’s operations to recognize “a recipe for disaster.”
Guards were being hired off the street with little education or training. Kids from ages 10 to 21 were mixed on the same dorm. At night, the inmate/guard ratio was as high to 25 to 1, with open bay dormitories offering little security.
Maybe that’s why, when he received a Texas Ranger report outlining allegations of sexual abuse at the TYC’s Pyote facility, he acted immediately (instead of ignoring the report, like TYC management, or the midlevel staffer in Gov. Rick Perry’s office, who sat on it for a year).
Within days of receiving the graphic report, he publicly questioned TYC management in a Senate Finance Committee meeting, drawing press scrutiny of the allegations of sexual abuse. Hinojosa’s public airing of the allegations finally brought what he calls the “culture of corruption” at TYC into the open, along with the incompetence of local law enforcement authorities who failed to prosecute horrific crimes.
Now, Friday’s appointment of a joint special investigative committee of the Texas House and Senate could lead to wholesale restructuring of the Texas juvenile criminal justice system, starting with the “indeterminate” sentences that have been abused to silence critics of the system. TYC staff members could (and did) extend the sentences of incarcerated youths who complained about conditions, told about witnessing abuse, or refused the sexual advances of TYC staff members.
With such power at their disposal, TYC staff members bought the silence of their charges. “It’s an amazing system. It reminds me of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” Hinojosa told me. “Nurse Ratchett.”
Until now. Hinojosa’s office has been flooded with “hundreds” of emails, all containing names, dates and telephone numbers of witnesses, detailing new allegations of abuse. The newly named investigating committee has its work cut out for it: Hinojosa said he has “verified” that one Pyote adminstrator witnessed a youth being sexually assaulted with a broom stick and did nothing; at Brownwood, a guard accused of forcing female inmates to submit to sex was allowed to resign and never prosecuted.
“Wrong-doing became the norm,” Hinojosa said. “The board is partly to blame. They have no experience and they were named because they were political contributors or supporters.”
Where to begin? Hinojosa’s priorities:
1. Bringing abusers to justice. Along with the joint legislative committee, the Attorney General’s Office, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and the Legislative Audit Committee will delve into the allegations and collect evidence for prosecution. Hinojosa also wants the Legislature to create a permanent Office of Inspector General to handle TYC complaints.
2. Change the system of “indeterminate” sentencing. “If you don’t have the right lawyer, you can be sent in when you are 14 for having sex with a 12-year-old and you are there until you are 21,” Hinojosa said. “We need to downsize. We have too many kids being sent there.”
3. Institute program reforms. Rather than house kids in farflung outposts like Pyote, Hinojosa said the state should run four regional facilities near major urban areas, so that families have a chance to visit the incarcerated kids. More qualified mental health professionals and substance abuse counselors need to be hired. “We’re just warehousing them now,” Hinojosa said.
The nightmarish allegations have prompted a genuine emotional response from lawmakers. Hinojosa says he hopes to use the public outrage to force concrete change. “You’ve got to seize the moment,” he said. “We have a chance to do make TYC do what it is supposed to do: help these young people.”