Sins of Commission

We should absolutely find out who knew what when and why nothing was done sooner. But the real scandal at the state’s juvenile lockups is how little we learned thirty years ago, the last time the system failed us.

IT BEGAN WITH A WORD ONLY A CHILD would use—“icky”—uttered in a place where innocence was commonly assumed to be dead. A conversation between a tormented teenager and a volunteer math tutor about sexual abuse at a high- security lockup in Pyote, about fifty miles west of Odessa, set in motion a chain of events that has led to the downfall of the executive director of the Texas Youth Commission (the state agency responsible for juvenile corrections), the ousting of its board, the dispatching of police to every juvenile facility in the state, and an opening for the kind of corrections reform not seen since federal judge William Wayne Justice assumed control of the state prison system in the eighties. In the wake of the scandal, conventional wisdom about our obligation to delinquent youth has moved a long way in a very short period of time. “They are criminals,” one agency supervisor told a reporter shortly after the story broke in February. “They are not children, as you keep calling them. They have survived in this world by learning how to manipulate and using it to their advantage.” Two weeks later, after the real story of what had happened at Pyote had become impossible to deny, a rural East Texas legislator named Jim McReynolds was almost in tears. “They’re God’s children,” he told a packed hearing room at the Capitol. “I read last night till I wanted to vomit.”

What McReynolds and other legislators had been reading was a confidential Texas Rangers report describing, in stomach-turning detail, a year’s worth of alleged sexual abuse of multiple victims ranging in age from seventeen to twenty by two top officials at the West Texas State School, in Pyote. Ranger Brian Burzynski began his investigation in February 2005 after receiving a tip from the tutor, Marc Slattery. Burzynski completed his report a month later, but neither man was ever prosecuted. As a result, the details of the investigation were not made public until February 16 of this year, when I published a story on the long-hidden scandal on the Web site of the Texas Observer. Burzynski had discovered that the assistant superintendent at Pyote, Ray Brookins, was allegedly pulling inmates (or students, as they are called) out of the dorms at night and molesting them in his office. In his staff housing residence, adjacent to the facility, 41-year-old Brookins had an enormous cache of pornographic tapes and DVDs and sex toys, which he often brought to his office for his late-night activities. Investigators found semen stains all over his office: on the carpet, on the walls, on the furniture. Brookins’s power over the young men he allegedly victimized stemmed from his control over their length of stay at the facility. “You didn’t want to mess with Ray Brookins if you were a student,” one youth told me.

The principal at Pyote, 41-year-old John Paul Hernandez, had allegedly had more than a dozen sexual encounters with at least four students, according to the report. The men do not appear to have been covering for each other; Pyote had two alleged sexual predators, operating independently of each other, each in a position of considerable responsibility at the unit. Hernandez allegedly plied his victims with cake and popcorn at late-night TV-watching parties in his office or called them from daytime classes for furtive sessions in supply closets. He promised to help them get jobs or continuing education once they left Pyote and apparently maintained an ongoing sexual relationship with at least one student after he left the facility. Burzynski turned his report over to Ward County district attorney Randall Reynolds for prosecution, but Reynolds left it on his desk for more than eighteen months, never filing a charge against either Brookins or Hernandez. He told the Observer he was waiting to see where the case would lead, but it appears he never had any intention of going after the two men, who resigned shortly after the investigation began.

As grim as the picture presented in the Ranger report is, the findings of an internal agency review are, in some ways, even worse. At least three administrators at the school approached Pyote superintendent Chip Harrison with concerns about Brookins and Hernandez, yet Harrison didn’t take action against them. Rumors were rampant around the facility about both men. Brookins, for example, was spotted creeping around the student dorms at night in dark clothing, peering in windows at sleeping youths. Frustrated employees tried to bypass Harrison and complain directly to TYC brass in Austin, but a high-ranking official sent to investigate found nothing amiss and even chastised a whistle-blower for failing to support Brookins in his job. A year after Burzynski completed his investigation, when it appeared likely that the scandal was not going to make the papers, Harrison was promoted to a top position at the TYC in Austin. Worst of all, after resigning from the TYC, Hernandez somehow managed to find employment as a principal at a charter school in Midland, where he was still working when the Observer story came out.

The Dallas Morning News filed its own story on the Pyote scandal shortly after the Observer did, and soon every major paper in the state was chasing it. Within a week, the executive director of the TYC, Dwight Harris, resigned. Outraged by the allegations and the agency’s apparent attempt to hush up the crisis at Pyote, the state Senate called for placing the TYC under an outside conservator, a radical move usually accompanied by a complete housecleaning of the board and senior agency staff. Instead, Governor Rick Perry appointed his old deputy chief of staff Jay Kimbrough to do a top-to-bottom investigation of the TYC. Kimbrough immediately sent 71 peace officers to the agency’s 22 lockups and halfway houses. A special joint committee of House and Senate members was formed to propose reforms. Troubles at the youth commission had hijacked the legislative session.

In the weeks that followed, the revelations kept coming. The Morning News

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