At what point should we wash our hands of a troublemaking kid? That question has been on my mind since I reported on the six Silsbee youths who had beaten a horse to death (“The Horse Killers,” March 1996). A number of readers expressed outrage that the offenders, aged ten to fourteen, had received less than one-year sentences to juvenile facilities. “As sure as the sun rises,” one reader predicted, “we will hear from these perpetrators in the future as they are charged with other crimes.”
Gone are the days—though indeed they once existed—when we might have been inclined to view the Silsbee incident as a brutal but ultimately childish prank. Juvenile offenses in Texas increased 89 percent from 1988 to 1994, with violent crimes jumping 178 percent over the same period. In 1995 there were 100,179 referrals to juvenile authorities for delinquent offenses in Texas; 28,536 of these were felonies, and 8,500 were violent felonies. George W. Bush rode to victory in 1994 with juvenile justice reform as one of his four campaign platforms. The governor has made good on his promise to get tough on bad kids. As of this year, more children than ever before are being “certified” (tried as adults), while uncertified youths are eligible for sentences as lengthy as forty years. Texas can now send a fourteen-year-old murderer to prison for life or incarcerate a teenage rapist until he is in his mid-fifties. Perhaps most significantly, the Texas Youth Commission ( TYC) juvenile correctional facilities, once little more than holiday camps, are now tough and demanding institutions, and the TYC has the statutory authority to hold any of its wards—no matter how short their minimum sentences or how minor their offenses—until their twenty-first birthday.
Because both the public and its elected officials are bent on making Texas a delinquent-unfriendly state, I was fully prepared to see signs of harsh retribution throughout my recent weeklong tour of eight TYC facilities. After all, these institutions house the state’s 2,400 worst juvenile offenders. The kids I saw had alienated their parents, their schools, their communities, and finally their local probation authorities; they represented the 2 percent of all juvenile referrals for whom there seemed no solution other than to lock them up. The Silsbee horse killers (all of whom have returned home) were model citizens compared with the murderers, arsonists, kidnappers, and rapists I met. In fact, at one facility I visited, a few boys burst out laughing when I told them that some people had actually gotten upset at kids for killing a horse.
Accompanying me on portions of my tour was the commission’s executive director, Steve Robinson, a six-foot-eight country boy who likes to say, “I’m not a social worker, I’m a corrections person.” (Coincidentally, his college roommate at Sam Houston State University was Andy Collins, the recently departed chief of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.) Until Robinson took over the TYC in December 1993, the agency believed that its role was to nurture rather than punish. That governing philosophy may have been appropriate for the truants and runaways that the TYC historically housed, but it became a dangerously outdated approach to the offenders of the nineties, who, as one TYC veteran put it, “are criminal in their thinking, with no respect for authority and no empathy whatsoever for their victims.” To these young toughs, the TYC was a joke. They showed up at the facilities toting stereos and suitcases full of clothes. They wore jewelry and gang colors and took swings at the staffers. Then they returned to the streets, as ignorant and vicious as before.
Robinson aimed to change all that. “I was trained in the TYC way, which was to love kids,” he told me, “but our agency has got to be the ultimate hammer for kids who’ve been shooting the bird at the system—and a hammer made of lightweight rubber won’t do the trick. When a judge commits a kid to the TYC, I don’t want that kid to say, ‘So what?’ I want him to say, ‘Oh, shit.’”
Here are a few Robinsonian touches. Today, the new “residents” (as TYC inmates are termed) arrive in arm and leg restraints at the gates of the Orientation and Assessment Center in Marlin, an intentionally dismal-looking former Texas Department of Criminal Justice ( TDCJ) prison. They are led into a white concrete room, where they are ordered to strip and hand over their personal effects, given a pair of gym shorts, and as Robinson puts it, “told, in effect, ‘You are in serious trouble.’” Then they are taken to a shower room, where they are deloused. The boys are given crew cuts. Every waking minute of their day is thereafter accounted for, including three minutes of shower time and twenty minutes for each of the three meals. (The food is prepared by inmates from a nearby adult prison, which might explain the sprinklings of pebbles, fingernails, and bugs the Marlin residents claim to encounter in their grub.) After a minimum 45-day stay, the residents are transferred to the appropriate facility—capital murderers to the unit at Giddings, females to Bronte, emotionally disturbed offenders to Corsicana, and so on. The juveniles in the TYC’s care live a militarized life: intensely structured sixteen-hour days, uniforms, single-file movements, and privileges that are both hard earned and easily revoked. Those who don’t take to the program are treated to seven-day stays in tiny, desolate security cells. “The message throughout,” says Robinson, “is that eligibility for release is entirely based on changing your behavior.”
And yet the TYC’s methods for changing behavior are not mean-spirited. Tear away its stern trappings and what you find is an agency that regards almost all of its young crooks as salvageable—an attitude as manifestly optimistic as the adult prison system’s mind-set is pervasively cynical. Undeterred by a public that would just as soon see its juvenile offenders busting rocks, Steve Robinson’s TYC has heroically set out to make good kids out of bad.