Reports reveal 'gang war' at Texas juvenile prison

Staff are describing the string of assaults and disruptions as a "gang war" at the juvenile prison


Keri Blakinger
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — A second Texas juvenile prison is embroiled in what inmates and staff describe as a "gang war," with a string of assaults and disruptions, including a 33-person fight and bad behavior so widespread that officials were forced to put some of the dorms on "shut-down" status.

The unrest at Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg is the latest in a growing string of problems revealed in oversight reports that are attracting the attention of state lawmakers, who are set to tackle the agency's troubles this week in a Senate committee hearing.

"It truly is probably worse than the Wild West," said Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which will take up the matter Tuesday. It's not clear what the answer is, but the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is "at a turning point," according to the Houston Democrat.

More than a decade after a sex abuse scandal sparked an overhaul and forced the agency to change its name, the state's juvenile prisons are again beset by turmoil, as officials grapple with officer arrests, inmate deaths, an escape, high-level turnover, a six-day mass disturbance at Gainesville, two ongoing "gang wars" and persistent staffing shortages.

"It's a mess," Whitmire said. "Doing nothing is not an option."

Problems in the Valley

Two months ago, a cluster of teens in the Evins rec yard started throwing punches, a disturbance divided along racial lines with black and Hispanic youth fighting each other, according to a site visit report from the Office of the Independent Ombudsman.

The fight involved 33 kids, but an agency spokesman this month clarified that only about 10 of them actively engaged in the fight and no one required medical attention afterward. It was just one in a string of assaults and major disruptions that same month at the South Texas lock-up, which holds just over 110 boys.

Following a January site visit, officials noted that staff and youth both reported a "gang war." Some kids said they were forced to pick a side in order to avoid becoming targets, while others said they'd gotten moved to different dorms for safety - but it didn't help because the problems were so widespread.

The conflict escalated to the point that two of the dorms were "shut down" due to "gang issues, assaults and other safety issues" when oversight officials visited in January. Another dorm was so chronically disruptive that staff dubbed it "The Jungle" given the frequent "behavior and safety violations."

As at Gainesville, teens were ordering "hits" on officers, according to the report, though spokesman Brian Sweany stressed that those hits are assaults and not "how the general public thinks about a 'hit' from the gangster movies."

Despite the variety of problems laid out in the ombudsman's January report, the agency pushed back on the use of specific terminology, and also laid out moves to address the problems through transfers and safety plans.

"We do not have a 'gang war' at Evins. We do have a gang issue," officials wrote in the response section of the report. "Characterizing our challenges as 'gang wars' misrepresents the risk and obscures the appropriate measures required to promote safety and security. The facility will work with staff to properly identify the issue so that the term is not used improperly. The youth involved have aligned their loyalties along race, common geography, and other similarities more than gang influences."

Aside from the outbursts of violence at the South Texas lock-up, the report noted recurring difficulties controlling the teens. When oversight officials showed up in January, they spotted one teen cursing and taking a swing at a staffer. Others swarmed in with threats and obscenities, eventually throwing water on an officer. When one staffer tried handcuffing the instigator, the others tried pulling the officer away.

In previous reports, oversight officials noted similar concerns last fall, with kids throwing food, flipping over tables and, in one case, assaulting a staffer badly enough to cause "serious bodily injury." The spokesman last week declined to explain, citing medical privacy laws.

A History of Concerns

The string of problems stretches back to at least 2017, when a number of staffers were accused of having or trying to have sex with youths in their care.

In the months that followed, the state's juvenile justice system weathered several high-level shake-ups, including the appointment of a new executive director, the ouster of the longtime independent ombudsman, and the replacement of the board chair.

In February 2018, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced the arrest of four current and former juvenile justice employees accused of tampering with records and using excessive force in handling jailed teens. Weeks later, a leaked email revealed more departures and restructuring.

Then in April, two Houston-area teens escaped from Giddings State School, when they scaled the "no-climb" fence at the understaffed juvenile prison. Officials weren't sure the pair had made it past the fence until an off-duty staffer spotted them in a park. They were captured less than 24 hours later in Montgomery County.

The following month, a 16-year-old locked up on a drug possession charge hanged himself from a vent in his cell at Evins, according to a state custodial death report. The boy had put up paper to cover the window of his cell door.

In October, a 16-year-old drowned in the pool at Evins. The lifeguard didn't act quickly enough, and the boy wasn't a strong swimmer. But authorities didn't realize that because the officer who'd administered swim tests had retired and was never replaced, according to oversight reports.

Afterward, the agency shut down the pool.

Then in late November, six days of chaos broke out at Gainesville, when gang tensions and boredom boiled over. Staff and inmates described the conflict as part of an ongoing "gang war " that included planned "hits" on guards, fights and vandalism.

"This is all just evidence of the problem that we keep pointing out," said Brett Merfish, director of Youth Justice at the nonprofit Texas Appleseed. "The facilities are a failed model and we can't expect to have large, remotely located understaffed facilities that are safe."

Staffing Problems

While Gainesville and Evins may be among the most troubled, according to state reports, concerns about inadequate supervision and insufficient staffing levels plague the department.

The facility in McLennan was around 60 percent staffed in November, according to the quarterly ombudsman report, and earlier in the year, staff reported being forced to work back-to-back shifts. The Ron Jackson lock-up in Brownwood was so shorthanded that youth couldn't go to certain programs and it became difficult to adequately supervise kids on suicide watch.

At Evins, officers reported that they'd been forced to work 12-hour shifts, and at Gainesville, one overworked staffer asked ombudsman officials if they were there to relieve her.

As of late last week, some staffing situations appeared to be improving, according to Sweany. Figures provided to the Chronicle showed that Evins is now overstaffed, while Giddings is at about 92 percent of the staffing level needed for a 1-to-8 officer-to-inmate ratio. The McLennan and Brownwood facilities are both about 25 percent short of that level.

Whitmire was baffled by the new numbers, which he said called into question the agency's claims that they couldn't remove more kids from the troubled Gainesville unit because they were too understaffed everywhere else.

A Path Forward

When scandal struck the department in 2007, there were roughly 5,000 kids in custody. But the shocking abuse allegations sparked an overhaul, and the department stopped holding kids on lower-level offenses, bringing down the juvenile prison population as youth shifted into county-run facilities and alternatives to incarceration.

Today, only about 850 kids are in the state's five juvenile prisons. And while reformers and lawmakers generally agree that's a good thing, weeding out the lower-level offenses means that the kids still locked up are some of the highest-needs teens in the system.

"The problem is that the make-up of juvenile justice has completely changed," Whitmire said. "We used to send school truants there - now, you have to be a convicted felon, and what's happened is that we haven't adapted the locations or the personnel for youth that have been convicted of violent felonies."

On top of that, the remaining prisons are on sprawling rural campuses, where it's hard to retain staff and difficult to supervise unruly youth. Whitmire advocated for sending some of the older youth to the adult prison system - especially those with a history of assault and gang involvement.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, recently proposed solving the problem with a budget rider requiring the closure of Gainesville by September 2020. Whether or not the current scrutiny leads to any prison closures, Wu said, municipalities can look at ways to keep kids out of lock-ups.

"We want jurisdictions to send fewer kids who are charged with non-serious crimes," he said. "If we provided counties with more support, more resources, more abilities for kids to get more treatment at home, then maybe they wouldn't feel like they needed to send these kids to a prison."

For the advocates at Texas Appleseed, the best solution involves keeping kids out of troubled prison and jails altogether.

"It isn't that we're interested in trying to go in and fix them," Merfish said. "We're interested in alternatives to them."

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©2019 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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