Pay raises alone won’t solve staffing shortages in “nightmare” Texas youth prisons, ex-workers say

Tiffany Jones, a former youth prison officer, cries outside her home in Manor when recalling the trauma she endured at the Giddings State School. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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As blood began seeping through her pants, Tiffany Jones helplessly watched the clock. She was the lone adult in a Texas juvenile prison dorm watching a dozen teenage boys, and her increasingly desperate radio calls for a bathroom break went unanswered.

Jones wasn’t supposed to be alone with the boys out of their cells in the first place on that August day, but chronic short-staffing at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department often forced this federal standard to be overlooked.

When she felt her period begin at around 9:30 a.m., she requested that someone stand in for her for a few minutes. When the clock neared 1 p.m. and she still hadn’t been relieved to go to the bathroom, it wasn’t a colleague who rescued her but the young detainees.

Either annoyed by their supervisor’s repeated radio calls, sympathetic to her growing distress or both, she said the boys volunteered to be locked in their cramped cells without supervision so Jones could run out and clean herself up as much as possible.

She came back to the dorm, her underwear and pants covered in blood, with another five hours left in her shift. She continued to radio for help, hoping to run to the nearby Walmart and grab some new clothes.

It wasn’t until after 3 p.m. that the shift administrator at the Giddings State School walked into the dorm to answer the calls for help that had begun almost six hours earlier. Jones was told she couldn’t leave, but staff could bring her some clean boxers and a pair of pants like those given detainees. She accepted, but the new clothes never arrived. (TJJD officials said Jones declined the boys’ clothes.)

“There’s no reason I should have been left in bloody clothes in front of boys all day,” the former employee said in a recent interview. “If that would have happened anywhere else, that place of employment would have been sued. But because it's the state of Texas, it’s OK to treat employees the way they were doing.”

Since the incident, Giddings has created a team of five staffers to rotate around the rural campus providing breaks for employees working in dorms alone.

And, despite the way she was treated, Jones wanted to stay at Giddings, one of Texas’ five youth prisons that detain nearly 600 teenagers sent by local judges who believe they need more intense supervision than county facilities can provide.

Tiffany Jones, a former TJJD employee, poses for a portrait at her home in Manor on Nov 2, 2022.Tiffany Jones, a former TJJD employee, points to where her foot was crushed while working at a TJJD facility in Giddings, at her home in Manor on Nov 2, 2022.

Jones shows where her foot was permanently damaged while breaking up a fight at Giddings. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Jones was pulled to the profession because of her own troubled childhood, and she got along well with the boys she supervised. Plus, the 33-year-old had a new baby, and with two other children, the insurance was too good to give up, she said.

A few months later, just after Thanksgiving, she permanently injured her foot at work trying to break up a fight between two boys. She is no longer able to walk or stand for extended periods of time, so she was let go for medical reasons early this year. She is waiting to hear if she will be approved for disability benefits.

Texas’ juvenile prisons have been in crisis for at least 15 years, entrenched in repeated sexual abuse and mistreatment scandals and consistently understaffed. The agency’s officer positions have long been the hardest to fill in state government, with turnover rates significantly higher than for other difficult jobs like adult prison officers and Child Protective Services specialists.

This summer, TJJD hit a breaking point. Months after the agency’s leader abruptly resigned, the interim director told county juvenile justice departments in July she could no longer accept teens sentenced to the youth prison system. The agency was hemorrhaging officers, and most of the new ones hired to staunch the bleeding were leaving within six months.

Staffing shortages were so severe, kids were often kept in their cells for up to 23 hours, forced to use water bottles and lunch trays as toilets. Agency officials feared the emergency meant they could no longer keep troubled youth safe, as self-harm among children in the prisons had skyrocketed.

The agency has since scrambled to keep itself afloat, primarily by focusing on bumping up officer salaries. By postponing reentry programs and using savings from unfilled positions, TJJD was able to implement a permanent 15% raise for officers in July, moving from a starting salary of around $36,000 to nearly $42,000.

The agency believes the raises have boosted safety and support for staff, since more employees means less stress on existing workers, according to spokesperson Barbara Kessler. She noted the July raise led to nearly double the applicants in July and August, leading to the largest number of officer hires in recent history in September.

And agency reports through August showed the staffing losses did stabilize as more new hires were coming on with the higher pay. But state reports show the agency in September still had less than half of its budgeted officer positions filled with active employees, as existing officers were still jumping ship.

That’s because low pay often isn’t their main concern — it’s how they’re treated. According to a review of exit surveys last year reported by the state auditor, poor working conditions was by far the most common reason people left TJJD. Better pay was listed fourth as the reason for TJJD departures, despite it ranking second among all state agencies.

Jones blamed her traumatic experiences at Giddings on favoritism, where some people were able to get lunch and bathroom breaks, while those on the outside were ignored. Another former employee who left for a job that she said paid about half her TJJD salary faulted changing treatment practices and a lack of communication from management. Neither blamed their struggles on the children, typically imprisoned for violent offenses.

“That place is a nightmare, but they wonder why people don’t want to work with them,” Jones said.“That’s the sad part, it’s not even the kids.”

“I had to let it go”

Shortly before she left last August, Cheryl Blevins, 51, had envisioned herself working at TJJD until retirement.

Caring for children in need is a core part of her identity. She and her husband fostered children for a dozen years, ultimately adopting two and raising them with their three biological children. And for nearly 14 years at Giddings, she felt she was making a difference in children’s lives, ultimately becoming a night shift administrator.

But policy and staffing changes began to weigh too heavily on her. The final straw came early last year when medical staff were no longer scheduled for the night shift, only months after Giddings became home to imprisoned youth experiencing mental health crises, Blevins said.

“I’d have kids try to hang themselves, try to cut themselves, try to put screws or metal into their genitals, and I’m not a nurse. I can’t handle that,” Blevins said. “I put my hand down a young man’s throat because he intentionally swallowed a sock to suffocate himself, because we have no nurse.”

Kessler said officers receive first aid and CPR training to handle these types of emergencies, and noted Blevins followed such training in helping the suffocating boy. Blevins, however, feared a child would die on her watch because it would take too long to get proper medical care.

“This is not a bitter ex-employee. If things were still safe there, I’d still be there,” she told The Texas Tribune recently. “When it became dangerous for kids and dangerous for people who worked there, I had to let it go.”

Cheryl Blevins, a former TJJD employee, poses for a portrait in Bastrop on Nov 2, 2022

Cheryl Blevins in Bastrop on Nov. 2, more than a year after she left TJJD. She previously thought she would work at the agency until she retired. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Beyond feeling unsafe, she said TJJD employees often don’t feel supported by agency leadership. To illustrate, she points to the rollout of a new restorative justice treatment program in 2019.

Implemented by the former head of the agency, the Texas Model was intended “to effect real change instead of just forcing compliance,”according to Kessler. Kids breaking rules don’t automatically go to solitary detention cells, and there is more flexibility and discussion involved with disciplining the teenager.

“The model provides staff with a variety of tools to help youth better handle their emotions and express their needs without aggression,” the spokesperson said.

Blevins gave an example of one kid who peed on another teen’s clothing. Before the Texas Model, the offending teen would have been sent to isolated cells as punishment. Under the new approach, there would be discussions with the youth, and he would have to wash the soiled clothing.

Blevins said overall she wasn’t against the program, but its rollout was chaotic and unwelcomed by some tenured officers who she said viewed the changes as taking away the teenagers’ accountability.

“It takes a lot of the culpability away from them and puts it on their past trauma and things their parents may have done to them,” Blevins said.

Although there are those who disagree with the new approach, Kessler said overall, it has made employees feel safer and happier, citing more than 2,000 employee surveys over the last three years. Employees also undergo 22 hours of additional training for the new model, she said, learning trauma-informed care and strategies to build healthy relationships with youth and influence behavior.

Blevins said the training was not implemented uniformly, and it wasn’t made clear to employees why they were suddenly changing their approach to caring for youth. However well-intentioned, Blevins blames the new program and its disorganized implementation in short-staffed units for a loss of veteran officers at TJJD.

“It was never said [that] this is going to be more effective, or there’s more research behind it,” she said. “Tenured staff, we don’t do kindly with, ‘Do it because we say so.’”

Trauma echoes

After two years at TJJD, Jones’ life is forever altered due to her work injury. At 33, she has trouble driving to the nearby grocery store and can’t walk the aisles like before. She can’t do things with her three kids she used to love, like bounce her 1-year-old on her feet to make her laugh.

“I have an 8-year-old who wants to go and do things, like Sea World,” Jones said, wiping tears from her face. “She wanted me to teach her how to ride a bike, and I couldn’t stand up long enough.”

Nearly a year after the accident in which her foot was fractured and hyperextended, Jones still walks with a heavy limp through her home. Her foot still routinely swells up or goes numb, and with too much movement, the chronic pain radiates up through her thigh, she said. She falls randomly and has trouble walking up her stairs.

She is set for surgery soon, an experiment to see if a spinal cord stimulator will help ease her pain.

Her worker’s compensation payouts are nearing their end as she waits to hear if she will be deemed eligible for disability benefits. She’s working toward a degree in criminal justice online but doesn’t know what she’ll be able to do with it now.

To keep her mind busy and help her recent depression, her husband suggested she take up arts and crafts. She spends much of her day making keychains, picture frames and paintings with epoxy resin.

Tiffany Jones, a former TJJD employee, demonstrates her artwork at her home in Manor on Nov 2, 2022. Jones has used art as a way to combat the severe depression she suffered after her injury.

In her makeshift art studio, Jones demonstrates how she has used art to combat the depression she’s experienced since her injury. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

“It gives me something to do besides sit in a chair and be depressed,” she said on the floor of her new art studio, one of her kids’ former bedrooms now filled with canvas and paint bottles and covered wall to wall with plastic tarp.

Unlike Jones’ experience, Blevins’ life after TJJD was a breath of fresh air.

She left last fall to work as a teacher’s assistant at a Bastrop elementary school in a class for students with autism. Her salary is less than half of what she made at TJJD, she said, but she never for a minute has regretted her decision.

While working at TJJD, she was on medication for mental illness, and she had trouble sleeping. Her mind was never far from Giddings, and she often got called in on her days off as well.

After she quit, she said she lost about 140 pounds, she sleeps soundly and, most important to her, she’s no longer on any mental health medication.

Cheryl Blevins, a former TJJD employee, poses for a portrait in Bastrop on Nov 2, 2022

Blevins shows a photo of the version of herself when she worked at TJJD. Since leaving, she has lost about 140 pounds and been taken off mental health medication. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

“I thought I was just a huge mental illness basket case,” she said on a park bench, laughing sadly. “But it turns out I just felt unsafe at my job.”

Next year, TJJD officials have asked lawmakers for extra funding for substantive changes outside of salaries, including building three new facilities in urban areas with bigger labor pools than the rural areas that house the state’s youth prisons. But primarily, the agency is focusing on raises, including bumping starting pay for officers up to $45,000.

Blevins said more needs to be done, like hiring more people who have specialized in criminal justice and are experienced with juvenile development.

“The raise was nice, but there needs to be more training that goes with that raise,” Blevins said. “You need to be prepared to deal with some really horrific things.”