AUSTIN, Tex. — Juvenile detainees as young as 13 years old slept on filthy mats in dormitories with broken, overflowing toilets and feces smeared on the walls. Denied outside recreation for weeks at a time, they ate bug-infested food, did school work that consisted of little more than crossword puzzles and defecated in bags.
Don Sorgman and Terri Bruce say their 17-year-old son has been beaten by other inmates and pepper-sprayed by guards.
After months of glowing state reports, the squalid conditions were disclosed on Oct. 1 by state inspectors at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center in Bronte. They are another sign of the deep disarray of the Texas Youth Commission, the nation’s second-largest, after Florida’s, and most troubled juvenile corrections agency.
The agency already faces state and federal investigations into accusations of sexual abuse by juvenile corrections officers. In March, the commission’s board of directors resigned under pressure, and many other top officials have been ousted. After a review by an expert panel, more than 200 inmates were released from some of the state’s 13 residential confinement centers because their sentences had been improperly extended.
There are also reports of endemic violence at some centers. At least 11,000 youth-on-youth assaults occur every year, according to state figures, and in the last 12 months there were 14,000 assaults on staff members.
State officials say chronic job vacancy rates and critical employee turnover are at the root of many of the system’s problems. Employee terminations since September 2006 have far outpaced recruitment. The agency has hired 870 juvenile corrections officers since September 2006 to October 2007. In that period 1,241 officers left their positions, or about half the juvenile corrections officers.
One-third of the departing officers were fired for poor performance, falsification of applications or inappropriate conduct, including physical abuse of detainees.
In August, the acting director of the agency, Dimitria D. Pope, the fourth person to run it since February, was confident enough about the system’s progress that she assured politicians that the abuse of juveniles had been “98 percent” eliminated.
The new Coke County disclosures seem to have shaken Ms. Pope’s optimism.
“I don’t know how deep the problems really are in terms of the corruption in the organization,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Pope has transferred the 197 offenders in Bronte to other institutions, fired seven monitoring officials and canceled an $8 million contract with the GEO Corporation, the prison company in Boca Raton, Fla., that managed the center. The state has also opened a criminal investigation and a review of the adult prisons run by GEO.
GEO executives said in a news release that they had “provided quality detention services at the center for 13 years” and announced plans to market it to local and federal agencies.
The agency’s 13 institutions are often hundreds of miles from metropolitan areas, and salaries starting around $23,000 have hindered recruiting staff members, say corrections officials and juvenile justice experts.
State auditors found that on average there was one corrections officer for every 24 juveniles, double the nationally accepted standard. Corrections officials say that with so few guards it is impossible to monitor youths adequately and defuse dangerous situations.
“Insufficiently paid staff, not enough staff — these are fairly common problems throughout the nation,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, Calif. “But the breakdown in Texas is more dramatic than any other place I’ve seen.”
The violence in the agency’s institutions has led to soaring injury rates, with more than 700 officers filing claims since September 2006, a higher proportion than at Texas’ adult prisons.
Natalie Jordan, a juvenile corrections officer, is a 27-year veteran of the agency and the mother of a 15-year-old serving 12 months for burglary at the Crockett State School in East Texas.
Since he was committed, Ms. Jordan’s son has been in more fights than she can recount. In one fight, a corrections officer dislocated her son’s shoulder while trying to hold him. In another, she said, an officer broke up a fight by blasting her son in the face with pepper spray.
Don Sorgman said his 17-year-old stepson had repeatedly been assaulted by other offenders since he was committed in February for stealing from a snack machine.
Mr. Sorgman learned about the assaults from his son and from a profanity-laced letter sent to him by self-proclaimed gang members who bragged that they had physically dominated the boy. Mr. Sorgman said his son had also been pepper sprayed by guards at least twice.
“He’s a different person than he was,” Mr. Sorgman said, recalling his impressions after a recent visit with his stepson. “The hardships he has been put through has definitely hardened him, changed him, and not for the better.”
The use of pepper spray became a new source of contention for the agency in August, when Ms. Pope issued a memorandum expanding its use. Ms. Pope argued that juvenile corrections officers needed help controlling their short-staffed units and that pepper spray was safer than physically restraining disruptive or violent young people.
Despite a court settlement in September that halted the expansion policy in lieu of public hearings on the question, incidents of using pepper spray have spiked. The agency reported 652 such events from September 2006 to August 2007, a fourfold increase over the previous 12 months.
“I know a lot of people who have broken arms and ankles while trying to hold these kids,” said Tony Cox, a corrections officer at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood. “That’s why I’m a strong believer in using pepper spray before actually grabbing a kid.”
In September, a state task force charged with recommending reforms to the agency said the debate between supporters of physical restraints and pepper spray presented “a false choice.”
“The challenge,” it said, was for the agency “to find ways to decrease all uses of force through an emphasis on other methods.”
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