Months of chaos lead to dozens of charges at Texas juvenile prison

Efforts to shut down the facility failed and officials only received a fraction of money they hoped would fund change


Keri Blakinger
Houston Chronicle

GAINSVILLE, Texas — When the chaos started last year at Gainesville State School, it came as no surprise. There’d been whisperings around the sprawling prison campus — gang signs, passed notes, minor skirmishes.

In short, there were all the usual harbingers of a coming disturbance, according to former staffers.

It finally erupted into a week of turmoil in late November, with teenage inmates slipping out of their dorms, assaulting staff, hiding in trees, breaking windows and hitting each other.

At the time, Texas Juvenile Justice Department officials downplayed it, saying there was “no ongoing six-day riot.” But months later, the fallout continues as more than two dozen teens have been arrested in connection with that disturbance and others that followed.

Documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle offer a broader picture of the continuing troubles at Gainesville, including fights, gang conflicts, lack of staff and two incidents in which officers lost facility keys apparently purloined by the kids they were supposed to be guarding.

BY THE NUMBERS

“Gainesville is a disaster; they’re sitting on a time bomb,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee. “They know it, I know it, the public knows it. The problem is, I don’t think they know what to do.”

But, with the legislative session in the rearview mirror and little action taken in Austin, it’s not clear what a path forward might look like. Efforts to shutter the North Texas facility and consolidate all five state secure lock-ups failed, and the agency got only a fraction of the money officials hoped would fund change and continue to lower the prison population.

“I worry for the kids that are left in those five remaining facilities,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of child advocacy group Texas Appleseed. “This is a problem that Texas needs to finish tackling.”

String of arrests

After a flurry of arrests in recent weeks, at least 27 teens at Gainesville were referred to prosecutors for attempted escape and false alarm cases in connection with 11 different outbursts and major disturbances at the Cooke County facility north of Dallas.

Most of the collars came in connection with the six days of chaos last year, but some cases stem from other incidents, such as the March disruption when corrections officers — which the agency has now announced will be called “Youth Development Coaches” — lost track of the dorm keys for two days.

The prison was relatively calm early last fall, with just one teen arrested for false alarm in October and one in mid-November, according to Special Prosecution Unit Executive Director Jack Choate. But the events of Nov. 30 — the second day of the major disturbance — eventually led to charges against 19 kids in connection with five different incidents.

After more outbursts two days later, a juvenile was referred to prosecutors for a false alarm charge and five kids were charged as the result of a second outburst. Then in March, three teens were charged with attempted escape, days after the keys vanished.

In all, 16 youths were charged as juveniles and 15 as adults, a sizable portion of a facility population that state data shows has ranged from about 100 to 170 teens this year.

The 31 cases are more than usual for Gainesville, Choate said, but that number is not unheard of “if something big happens.”

Prison officials declined to comment on the arrests, but advocates framed the charges as indicative of the scope of problems at the facility.

“It is heartbreaking to me that there are parents who entrusted their children to the state for rehabilitation,” Fowler said, “and not only are their children’s needs not being addressed but the facility’s conditions are so dangerous and volatile that the child ends up getting arrested in the facility. There is something fundamentally broken about our system that allows that to happen.”

Months of chaos

Even as the charges bring some closure to last year’s chaos, struggles continue at Gainesville, according to state records through the first three months of the year.

The facility grappled with a series of small-scale outbursts in February, including one in which a group of teens fled from guards and climbed up to a dorm roof. In another, a child got on top of a golf cart and crushed the roof as he tried to scale a nearby building.

When oversight officials with the Office of the Independent Ombudsman visited that month, some of the kids didn’t have enough clothes for the cold weather and others sported new tattoos inked with smuggled-in needles and and sharpened staples.

Despite the lingering problems, gang-related disruptions started dying down that month. Management attributed it to the increased threat of prosecution, though teens told oversight officials it was because prison gang leaders agreed to a “contract” after the continual assaults had “gotten out of hand.”

But the following month chaos again spilled over into two major disturbances in three days. The first outburst came on the afternoon of March 9, when five teens attacked one of their peers in the day room and an officer responded by pepper spraying the crowd.

Afterward, staff opened the door to help air out the building — and a number of youths ran outside and started roaming around, refusing to follow instructions to come inside. Eventually some of the kids headed toward the mess hall, where four of them assaulted a student cafeteria worker. Then, six teens hid in trees until staff pepper-sprayed them to get them down.

Two days later, a bigger outburst roiled the facility, prompting oversight officials to note that the initial staff report “appears to under report the seriousness” of the incident.

“Upon review of the individual incident reports and dorm surveillance cameras, numerous youth were involved in what was described by staff members’ written reports as an ‘all out brawl,’ ‘massive disruption,’ and ‘major dorm disruption’ in the day areas,” oversight officials wrote after the March site visit. “Chairs and a table were being thrown, youth were fighting, and gang signs were being displayed.”

Because of it all, three kids fled the dorm unnoticed, ran across campus and got into a vacant building where they hid for an hour. When staff finally found them, they again ran — and two hid in a tree.

That night, staff noted in a report that the kids had slipped into the unoccupied building using a set of missing keys — and that the keys hadn’t been accounted for since at least March 9.

“This would indicate the keys were possibly missing for 2 days,” ombudsman officials wrote afterward, “and not reported missing until after they had been utilized by the youth.”

The keys finally turned up on March 12 after workers in the maintenance department found them in the bushes, according to an incident report.

In their written response, TJJD officials said they “did not under report the seriousness” of the first incident, and that they’d re-keyed the dorms in response to the second one. Now, one set of keys cannot be used to open multiple dorms.

“TJJD treats the issue of safety and security with the highest importance,” spokesman Brian Sweany told the Chronicle in an email. “The agency has developed a new policy for maintaining and accounting for keys that is being implemented throughout our system.”

History of problems

The problems in the juvenile prison system — which extend far beyond the fences of Gainesville — have been a long time in the making.

More than a decade ago, reports of sex abuse at a now-shuttered juvenile prison in West Texas sparked top-to-bottom reforms and an agency name change. Afterward, the state stopped sending kids to prison for misdemeanors, a move that helped shutter 10 facilities and drastically reduced the population: In 2004, there were nearly 5,000 kids in state secure facilities, according to state data. Today there are about 800.

But the kids left behind are now those charged with the most serious offenses, a higher-risk and higher-needs population than those in custody a decade ago. Nearly 44 percent of the population has been identified as having moderate or severe mental health needs — more than double what it was just three years ago, according to state data. About 80 percent of the kids committed what the agency categorizes as a violent crime and 70 percent have at least one family member in prison.

And in the past two years, the agency has come under scrutiny again after more sex abuse allegations surfaced, followed by the departure of the executive director, independent oversight authority and board chair. Then came the escape from Giddings, a suicide and separate drowning at Evins, the six days of chaos at Gainesville and a 30-kid melee at Evins with reports of a so-called “gang war.”

“It’s a mess,” Whitmire said in March. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

But nothing — or almost nothing — is exactly what happened.

Legislative fixes

Ever since Executive Director Camille Cain took over as head of the troubled agency at the start of last year, she has pushed for more coordination with juvenile probation departments, commitment to placing kids as close to home and for as little time as possible, and more focus on addressing past trauma.

In a state Senate committee meeting earlier this year, Cain advocated for expanding the use of contract beds and repeatedly told lawmakers the agency couldn’t shutter Gainesville without overtaxing other understaffed facilities.

Still, early in the legislative session, Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, floated a budget amendment to shutter Gainesville. The measure failed to gain any traction, and instead Whitmire proposed emptying out all five juvenile prisons and moving the kids to a single location — an erstwhile adult state jail in Bartlett.

Advocates promptly pushed back on that plan, and a coalition of 11 national youth justice groups came together in March to pen a letter expressing their “deep concern and opposition” to the “regressive” proposal, saying it would bring the children further from their homes and families and “only make a bad situation worse.”

Although lawmakers failed to pass the fix that would have allowed the Bartlett plan, Wu is still optimistic the agency can empty out the North Texas facility.

“At some point TJJD is going to have not enough kids to put in Gainesville and they’re going to think about shutting it down,” he said.

Wu suggested that the facility could be repurposed for use as an adult prison housing geriatric inmates. That’s a possibility that could gain some traction from advocates like Fowler, who pushed for closing Gainesville even while stressing that there are broader problems the agency must tackle.

“We’ve made great progress since 2007 but now is not the time to rest on our laurels,” she said. “There are still children in those facilities who need care and help and rehabilitation and aren’t getting it and there are communities that are not well-served by having those children return home in worse shape than they went in.”

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©2019 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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