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Fights, sex, drugs: Texas juvenile lockup on the verge of crisis, reports show

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  • Brandi Grissom
  • Sue Ambrose

Youths at the Gainesville State School say staff paid them with drugs and cash to assault one another.

A psychologist at the campus gave pornography to a boy there to encourage the young man to masturbate in front of him.

A youth attacked a guard and stole his radio so he couldn't call for help. By the time help arrived, the officer had a broken nose and needed four stitches over his eye.

The Gainesville State School for delinquent juveniles has been on the verge of crisis for more than a year, according to interviews and hundreds of pages of documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News. The youths — and staff who are supposed to protect them — are often abused and victimized.

"It's a bad culture," said Debbie Unruh, an independent watchdog charged with ensuring the safety of youths in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's custody. "It's a dangerous culture."

Department officials blame the school's troubles largely on their inability to hire and retain qualified staff to supervise hundreds of juvenile delinquents, many of whom suffer from severe mental health and behavioral problems. They say they're working to improve the situation.

"The constant churning of staff presents significant operational challenges, and has a detrimental effect on youth outcomes," David Reilly, TJJD's executive director, said in a written statement. "TJJD is continually evaluating options within available resources to address these concerns."

Juvenile justice advocates, however, say these problems have persisted at the remote, rural lockups under the department's control for more than a decade. Texas should abandon the fraught system, they argue, and adopt a model that keeps troubled kids closer to their homes.

"The entire purpose of this system is to rehabilitate, and if we are subjecting them to assault, that is the opposite of rehabilitation," said Lindsey Linder, policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Lawmakers were angry over the agency's failures and said the recent developments warrant investigation. But Reilly warned them more than a year ago of the impending trouble, and they failed to take action that might have averted the dire straits the agency now faces.

Chaos on campus

Like other youth prisons around the state, Gainesville has had too many kids and not enough staff. In monthly reports from August 2016 to September 2017, the independent watchdog routinely found the facility housed dozens more students than it had the capacity to oversee. Each month, the reports also documented how critical the staffing shortage was.

During that time, 160 employees at the facility either quit or were fired, data obtained by The News shows. According to the agency, the turnover rate at Gainesville in 2017 has been nearly 39 percent, the highest of the state's five youth lockups.

"There's always this new staff that doesn't quite know what to do," Unruh said. "That makes it more dangerous."

The staff who do show up to work are often saddled with overtime, Unruh said, leaving them exhausted and less attentive.

"If you're not able to supervise these kids, they act up and they do things to each other," Unruh said. "That makes it a very unsafe environment."

Monthly reports from the watchdog make clear that supervision is lacking.

In June 2016, the watchdog's office reported dozens of incidents in which youths fled from supervision. They climbed up trees and clambered onto rooftops. This May, a youth disappeared for three hours. By the time staff found him, he had broken several windows.

Another youth was left unattended in leg shackles for nearly six hours. In July, a campus surveillance video showed three youths huffing gasoline from clothing they had doused after finding an unattended lawnmower.

In some instances, though, youths report that staff paid the wrong kind of attention. Several youths independently told the watchdog's office in June that correctional officers would pay them with cash and drugs to carry out "hits" on other youths. Those reports followed incidents in which staff found suspected drugs, whiskey and cash, and one youth tested positive for K2, a form of synthetic marijuana.

"Good staff or bad staff, the kids will get under their skin, and next thing you know, they're offering them something to go fight a kid," Unruh said, adding that she was unable to document a specific fight that occurred in exchange for payment. Her report said youths didn't give names out of fear of retaliation.

TJJD officials said they were unable to investigate those incidents because they were not provided enough information.

Staff members also face danger. From last August through this September, they reported an average of nearly 27 assaults a month, according to reports of the independent ombudsman.

In October, a youth was arrested and charged with assaulting a public servant after he attacked guard Kenneth Marten. According to the youth's arrest affidavit, Marten was manning a dorm hallway when the youth asked to be released from his locked room to use the bathroom. When Marten unlocked the door, the youth beat him and threw his radio in the toilet so he couldn't call for help.

Marten ended up with a broken nose and four stitches above his left eye.

The youth admitted the assault to police, saying "he was feeling restless and wanted to get outside the dorm to hide on the grounds and in the trees."

The agency needs to develop a more positive culture in which the youths respect the staff and vice versa, Unruh said.

Lawmakers created Unruh's watchdog position after a 2007 sexual abuse scandal in which at least 13 boys were abused. The case led to accusations of a cover-up and reports exposing lax medical care, youth beatings and a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers at the agency then known as the Texas Youth Commission.

Lawmakers overhauled the system with the goal of improving safety by keeping youths closer to their homes and out of remote rural juvenile lockups. They also created the ombudsman's office to regularly talk with youths and ensure that problems are addressed before crises arise.

The number of youths in state custody has fallen dramatically, and lawmakers shuttered seven of the 12 facilities that were operational in 2007. Despite some improvements, population has recently increased, and problems retaining qualified staff have persisted.

Despite her repeated reports of mounting troubles, Unruh said she has seen little effort from TJJD leaders to improve.

"When we point out things, they don't change," she said. "These are things that I think are critical that have to do with safety."

Sexual predators

Staff members have also been accused of sexually abusing youths at the Gainesville facility. In the last three months, three female guards have been arrested on charges of sexual misconduct, including one who was arrested this week after allegedly having sex with a youth on multiple occasions.

Those arrests follow the conviction in July of Samuel Lee Wright, who pleaded guilty to improper sexual activity with a person in custody and is serving a 10-year sentence.

And last year, a psychologist hired to counsel youths confessed to providing pornography to a youth to encourage the youth to masturbate in front of him, the agency told The News.

Vincent Rager, now 31, began working at Gainesville in 2015. His online resume indicates he provided individual psychotherapy to boys at the school.

Rager resigned during their investigation, officials said; records show he resigned "in lieu of involuntary separation."

Reached by phone, Rager said he resigned because he wanted to move to California. He did not respond to inquiries about providing pornography.

Rager now works as a clinical psychologist treating male prisoners at Kern Valley State Prison in Bakersfield, Calif., according to a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Problems, not disarray

Reilly said the turnover rates at Gainesville and the state's other youth lockups are "unacceptably high." But he rejected Unruh's assertion that the campus is in chaos.

"Despite the recent unacceptable events, the facility has had many positive accomplishments and is not in disarray," he said.

This weekend, 88 youths at Gainesville will graduate with high school diplomas or other certificates. The campus also offers a smorgasbord of extracurricular activities, including football, dog training, art and religious events.

Reilly said staff at the lockup helped bring the sexual misconduct on campus to light so that it could be addressed. And the offending officers, he said, have been aggressively pursued.

"The reforms that began over 10 years ago addressed enforcement, and the recent arrests are evidence of our continued commitment to that priority," he said.

But Reilly also acknowledged that the agency doesn't have enough money to ensure the safety of youths or staff.

"Today, TJJD is not financially able to provide the staff presence necessary to minimize incidents and fully prevent misconduct. The lack of sufficient safety contributes to turnover, which exacerbates the already critical situation, and makes it difficult to achieve our goal that no staff is ever alone with youth," he said.

The agency cited safety concerns and compensation as reasons staff members leave. They are regularly left alone with up to 12 youths and haven't received overtime pay since mid-2017, when the agency stopped paying it because of financial constraints. Payments are set to resume next month.

'How do we stop this?'

In his budget request to lawmakers last year, Reilly warned that the department was facing a crisis because it was experiencing a surge in population, housing more youths than it had the money to serve and struggling to keep people employed.

But his requests largely went ignored.

Reilly said he hopes lawmakers will provide the agency with more money to hire and retain staff when the Legislature meets again in 2019.

Lawmakers who were told this week about the most recent troubles said that the agency should be investigated, that it needs more money to hire quality staff, and that the situation is unacceptable.

"When we get the facts together, we need to come together and decide how do we prevent this, how do we stop this," said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, chairman of the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.

But with more than 1,000 youths in Texas lockups, the state can't wait another year or more to fix the systemic problems at TJJD, said Linder, the staff attorney at the Criminal Justice Coalition.

"There needs to be an urgency among people who have the ability to change the system," she said. "You can't say as a lawmaker that you care about public safety and not respond to a situation like this."

For years, advocates like Linder have urged lawmakers to shutter the state's sprawling rural youth lockups that have struggled to find and keep competent employees. Instead, they contend, youths should be sent to smaller rehabilitation facilities in urban centers with a supply of qualified staff.

"I don't know how much we really deserve to be shocked," Linder said. "We've consistently known they don't have the means to adequately staff these facilities, and we haven't done anything about it."