Will to Power

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

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