Will to Power

How is a ponytailed former ACLU executive reforming the troubled Texas Youth Commission? By helping one inmate at a time.

February 2008By Comments

Hard time: Harrell has butted heads with TYC administrators over issues like the use of pepper spray.
Photograph by Matthew Mahon

Will Harrell entered the grounds of the Giddings State School, a high-security youth lockup in Central Texas, and immediately drove off-road, steering his shiny black Jeep along the facility’s fenced perimeter. When he reached a spot behind the athletic fields with a panoramic view, he grabbed a pair of binoculars from the dash and began scanning the grounds, which at that hour—about one in the afternoon on a crisp, sunny October day—seemed mostly deserted. “Just trying to get a sense, brother,” he told me.

Harrell, a barrel-chested 41-year-old with a black ponytail, became the first-ever independent ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission in the wake of last spring’s sexual abuse scandal, which began when news reports revealed that two high-ranking officials at a facility in West Texas had been caught molesting students but had never been prosecuted. A cascade of allegations of assaults and neglect at other units followed, until Governor Rick Perry was forced to take drastic action, placing the agency in conservatorship and removing the entire board of directors. In the months that followed, nearly all the agency’s top officials were forced out.

The speed at which the TYC imploded was head-spinning. Yet Harrell’s appointment as ombudsman has been perhaps the most unexpected result of the crisis. As the head of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for the preceding seven years, Harrell had developed a reputation as the most effective voice for criminal justice reform in Texas. From the governor’s perspective, that meant Harrell had more often than not been a source of criticism, on everything from Perry’s prosecution of the drug war to his decisions on clemency applications from death-row inmates.

Harrell’s impact at the TYC has been immediate and impressive. In his first three months on the job, he made unannounced visits to all thirteen lockups and nine halfway houses across the state and presented his findings to TYC administrators and a special legislative oversight committee. After his internal report about intolerable conditions and mismanagement at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, near San Angelo, found its way into the papers, the agency quickly pulled its kids out of the facility.

On this day at Giddings, Harrell carried a legal pad with a list of inmates he wanted to check on, starting with an eighteen-year-old gang member whom Harrell had first met at a unit in East Texas, where he had allegedly started a riot. “I kept hearing ‘Gutierrez, Gutierrez’—I wanted to meet this badass,” Harrell said. (The names of inmates in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.) During his first six months on the job, Harrell had cultivated relationships with a handful of young men on each campus, boys he calls his “expert consultants.” “If you get a few of them, especially the leaders, to trust you, the rest will follow,” he said.

As we made our way across a well-kept courtyard of grassy lawns and blackjack oaks, Harrell spotted an inmate he knew on a riding mower and flagged him down, giving him a soul handshake and a one-armed hug. He was a handsome seventeen-year-old Asian American with a sunny smile and fashionable glasses. Harrell had met him at a hearing in McAllen, when the youth had testified about a riot at a facility in South Texas. Legislators had been so impressed that one of them told him he’d have a job for him when he got out. “Heard you were in Coke County,” he told Harrell, smiling and shaking his head. They chatted about his upcoming release date, and Harrell said he would inquire about transferring the young man to North Texas, where he would be closer to his mother. He scribbled a note on his pad.

Moments later Harrell came upon two more inmates he recognized. They were both Hispanic, both about eighteen. Neither stood taller than Harrell’s chin, and they kept calling him “sir,” a convention of incarceration that sounded oddly incongruous in the presence of Harrell and his backslapping bonhomie. They were both about to get out, and Harrell said he would talk to their caseworkers about their parole. He started to make a note on his pad but had to admit he couldn’t remember one of their names. “I’ve met so many of you little jokers,” he said in Spanish, and the two young men doubled over laughing.

Harrell was raised the son of a real estate developer in suburban Houston, where he was a standout linebacker at Taylor High School. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas and a J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law, he found his calling doing human rights law in Guatemala in the mid-nineties, when the country was still reeling from a decades-long civil war characterized by countless atrocities against civilians. It was harrowing and occasionally dangerous work, and it gave Harrell a sense of urgency he seems never to have lost. When he is feeling warm or excited, Harrell still has a tendency to slip into Spanish, shouting words like “¡Eso!” (“That’s it!”) and “¡Híjole!” (“I’ll be darned!”). This is especially true when he is greeting somebody, even a person he has never met and who may or may not speak Spanish. Most of his friends are activists or attorneys dedicated to social justice, or what Harrell loosely calls “the struggle.”

“I like his free spirit,” said Jay Kimbrough, the deputy chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, whom Perry tapped to temporarily take over the TYC after the board was removed. Kimbrough, who is an old friend of the governor’s, kept Harrell close to him as a massive overhaul of the agency’s policies and personnel was hammered out last spring. After the reforms were signed into law, he was responsible for Harrell’s appointment as ombudsman in May. “The decision surprised a lot of people, but you’ve got to understand Kimbrough and Will Harrell to understand their relationship,” said McAllen senator Juan Hinojosa, who co-authored the TYC reform bill last session. Kimbrough is considered something of a maverick himself, a Harley-riding Vietnam veteran known around the Capitol as a John McCain—like figure. “I have trouble understanding what a lot of people in Austin are really saying,” Kimbrough said when asked about his alliance with Harrell. “But I know Will always says what he really means.”

The two first met in 2001, when Harrell was the executive director of the ACLU of Texas and Kimbrough became executive director of Perry’s criminal justice division. The ACLU had been pushing for reforms in the drug war, and seizing on a notorious police corruption scandal in the Panhandle town of Tulia, Harrell assembled a coalition to shut down the state’s scandal-plagued regional drug task forces. It was his first major organizing campaign as head of the ACLU of Texas, and though it took a few years to gain momentum, it became a stunning success. The governor eventually allowed the task forces to die on the vine, shifting funding and responsibility for statewide drug enforcement back to the more disciplined and better-managed narcotics division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Harrell followed this win with hard-fought victories on racial profiling and sentencing reform. He had a knack for attracting grant money from national foundations, some of which had previously written off organizing in Texas, and he accomplished all of this at a time when progressive wins were few and far between at the Capitol.

Harrell proved to be a quick study at politics, learning to work with people from the other side of the partisan divide. On juvenile justice issues, he found an unlikely ally in Marc Levin, who directs the Center for Effective Justice, an arm of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “We’re spending sixty thousand dollars per year per child, and we have a fifty percent recidivism rate,” Levin said. “Whether you look at it as a human rights issue or a cost-to-taxpayer issue, what we were doing was not working.” When Levin and Harrell were honored last May by the Legislature for their work on TYC reform, the two were seated side by side in the House gallery, Levin in his three-piece suit and Harrell in his leather vest and bolo tie, grinning and whooping when his name was called.

It wasn’t long, however, before fault lines began to emerge between Harrell and the new leadership at the TYC. Three weeks after the Coke County facility was shut down, Harrell was back in front of a legislative committee, recommending the closing of a North Texas lockup called Victory Field Correctional Academy. The response from the TYC brass, including acting executive director Dimitria Pope, was decidedly cool. Pope, who had come to the agency in June after a career in the state’s adult prison system, suggested that conditions at the unit were not as bad as Harrell had described. After months of unflattering stories in the daily papers, there seemed to be a sense among some in the agency that it was time to stop the bleeding and get the TYC off the front pages, regardless of how much work still needed to be done. As one TYC administrator put it, “If you want good people to work at the TYC, you have to stop telling everybody that this is a terrible place where kids are abused.”

Harrell also butted heads with the new administration over the use of pepper spray. In an effort to cut down on injuries to inmates and staff, Billy Humphrey, the new deputy director of residential services at the TYC, who is also a transplant from the adult corrections system, had encouraged correctional officers to use pepper spray on unruly inmates rather than grab or tackle them. Harrell objected, noting that the trend in the industry had been away from the use of chemical weapons, the abuse of which had forced authorities in Virginia and California to settle recent lawsuits. Pope sided with Humphrey. But shortly thereafter, two advocacy groups sued, and Pope modified the policy. “If I’m successful, the agency won’t be sued,” Harrell said. “So that was an example of how the ombudsman process is not supposed to work.”

The blowup over pepper spray has some in the advocacy community worried that the window of opportunity for continued reform at the TYC is closing. In September a blue-ribbon task force of juvenile justice experts convened by the agency last spring released its final report. It recommended that the TYC consider shuttering many of its larger far-flung institutions in favor of smaller facilities closer to inmates’ families and encouraged other reforms associated with what has come to be called the Missouri model, a program that has drastically reduced juvenile recidivism rates and per-inmate costs in that state over the past twenty years. The report landed with a thud, and TYC officials refused to endorse it. “I’m concerned that there seems to be a focus on control and punishment over education and rehabilitation,” said David Springer, the associate dean of UT’s School of Social Work, who chaired the panel. The reaction suggests hard slogging ahead for Harrell. He cannot be fired by Pope, but nor does she have to follow his recommendations. Still, Harrell has a lot of people pulling for him. “We’re always going to have plenty of cops,” Kimbrough said. “What Will brings is some balance.”

Harrell’s last stop on his October tour of the Giddings State School was a visit to the isolation wing, where he wanted to check on a young man named Paul who had been threatening to kill himself the last time Harrell visited the unit. Harrell was distressed to hear that Paul was back on suicide alert, which meant he was in solitary confinement, behind a heavy steel door for most of the day. The use of isolation has been practically eliminated in more-progressive systems, like the one in Missouri, but most units in Texas still have dozens of solitary confinement cells, used mainly for punishment.

Harrell entered the narrow cell flanked by two correctional officers, all three of them saying, “Hi, Paul,” in the kind of calm, nonthreatening voice you might use to coax a spooked horse out of his stall. The boy, who was about seventeen, stood up and began shifting slowly from one foot to the other. He was wearing nothing but a sleeveless padded apron, and he had several days’ worth of stubble on his jaw and a mop of unruly black hair. He held his arms out so Harrell could see the long, self-inflicted scars on his forearms. Harrell threw his own arms out to the sides in a gesture of disbelief. “I don’t know, man,” the boy said apologetically. “I’m just really messed up.” For the first time that day, Harrell couldn’t think of anything to say.

On the way back to Austin, Harrell seemed to recover his verve, talking at length about what he had learned from national experts about nutrition, vocational education, programming for female inmates, and a host of other topics. He seemed undeterred by his recent conflict with administrators. “I’m learning to flow like water, through the path of least resistance,” he said, quoting from The Art of War, one of his favorite books. “This has been a Sun Tzu bonanza for me.”

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