For the last two weeks, I’ve been reading the media accounts of the growing sex abuse scandal/coverup at TYC and asking myself, “How in the world could this have happened?” Then, it occurred to me: Because Harry Whittington, or someone like him, was never appointed to the TYC board.

When I arrived in Austin in 1981 to work in the Dallas Times Herald’s Austin bureau, I was assigned to cover the prison system. The Ruiz case brought near-daily filings in court alleging TDC mismanagement. Under the direction of former TDC director Jim Estelle, the system was run like a plantation with incompetent and abusive family members (TDC personnel) presiding over squalid, dangerous living conditions for inmates. Then Bill Clements appointed Harry Whittington to the board — yes, the Austin attorney shot by Dick Cheney — and all that changed. Until Harry joined the board, its meetings lasted no more than an hour since no one asked questions. Harry was the skunk at the garden party. He asked questions — lots of them — about procedures, about allegations in the federal lawsuit, about financial matters. He toured prisons and formed key relationships with TDC personnel in mid-level and lower positions. In short, he penetrated the layer of management that publicly lied and hid routine abuse of Texas inmates. I have no idea how Texas prisons are run now, but Harry — along with key allies on the board and among rank-and-file workers — made a historic leap forward during the 1980s.

So, I phoned Harry this morning, who, not surprisingly, has been following TYC media accounts religiously. “It brings back a lot of memories,” he told me. “After 27 years, not much has changed.”

This afternoon, a joint legislative investigative committee will begin searching for concrete ways to fix the corrupt culture at a major state agency. How should they go about it?

“One of the first things you need is a really active board that is interested and knows what questions to ask,” Harry said. “They need to understand there are lives under their control. They need to be concerned about the dignity of man and the sanctity of life.”

The board should start with the “top man or woman. A lot of board members don’t know they can fire the directors of these agencies,” he noted.

And they should not rely on upper management for their information. Harry got to know the TDC’s staff attorneys, some of whom had been ordered to “sanitize” reports. (Sound familiar?) Harry also spent enormous time sifting through the “reams of paper” sent to him by inmates and their families. Sure, a lot of letters were whining by people with too much time on their hands. “And then there was Lawrence Pope. He was as astute as anybody I’ve ever met and I never found anything wrong with his information,” Harry said.

Lawrence was a longtime prison inmate who also was a regular penpal of mine. I can attest that he had a keen eye for a good front page story.

Harry also believes that the state needs to relocate TYC facilities near urban areas, something lawmakers have already mentioned. “Board members aren’t going to make surprise visits to Pyote. And if they do, it will only be for one day — there’s no place to spend the night out there,” he noted. “You (board members) are not going to find out what they need to know at a briefing. You are going to have to search out information on your own.”

Harry had a warning for TYC board members: “If you are going to be asleep at the meeting, you are opening yourself up to personal liability.” Board members can be sued personally for injuries that occur because of their indifference.

Shortly after his appointment to the prison board, Harry said a prison riot in New Mexico claimed 26 lives. He visited the facility and it dawned on him that it ultimately would fall on his shoulders to prevent a similar occurrence in Texas.

“There’s no manual to tell you what to do when you have human lives under your control,” he said. “They (board members) better read everything they can get their hands on, hear all the complaints and listen to the families.”

A final note: Harry was later appointed to serve on the Texas Finance Commission, which the TYC approached for funding for a $2 million fence. Knowing the facility was isolated, Harry questioned whether such an expensive fence was needed. “They told me the closest resident lived at a gas station two miles away. I told them it probably would be cheaper just to build a fence around the gas station.”

The finance commission nixed the fence, but the TYC later got funding through the appropriations process. “Now I know why. They built that fence to lock all the kids in to victimize them,” he said ruefully.