Lawmakers offer stark choices for ending the crisis in Texas’ youth prisons — shut them all down, or build more

State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, speaks at a press conference at the Texas Capitol on Thursday to support his bill to close juvenile prisons. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Long entrenched in a continuous string of scandals over child abuse and mistreatment, Texas’ youth prison system is broken beyond repair and should be shut down, according to a state lawmaker.

In a dramatic proposal Thursday, state Rep. James Talarico announced legislation asking his colleagues to close the state’s five juvenile prisons and dismantle the agency that runs them by 2030.

“For more than a century, kids in Texas child prisons have been beaten, raped and even murdered behind bars,” the Round Rock Democrat said at the state Capitol. “The incarceration that we inflict on our kids causes unimaginable trauma, and it leads kids to be more likely to commit crimes in the future.”

But Talarico’s measure to close the youth prisons and channel their funding into local rehabilitative systems isn’t the only drastic option on the table. Other lawmakers, and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department itself, want to address the failing system by building more prisons.

Last year, the agency’s five prisons neared total collapse as officers fled the job in droves and most new employees left almost as quickly as they were hired. Without enough staff to properly supervise the nearly 600 youth in the prisons, children were locked alone in cells for up to 23 hours, often forced to use lunch trays or water bottles as makeshift toilets.

[Almost 600 Texas youths are trapped in a juvenile prison system on the brink of collapse]

Nearly half of the imprisoned youth had been on suicide watch, with children hurting themselves more and more, sometimes as a way to get out of their cells.

After The Texas Tribune reported on the dire conditions in August, youth justice advocates renewed longstanding efforts to close the juvenile prisons, and dozens of Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully called on Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address the emergency.

With lawmakers now in session at the Texas Capitol, the topic is again rising to the forefront. Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan announced this week that legislation keeping fewer kids in state prisons is one of his priorities, putting his weight behind state Rep. Joe Moody’s “Closer to Home” bill. The measure would aim to divert more youth from state prisons by establishing a network of community-based programs for rehabilitation and criminal prevention, like mental health services, mentoring and after-school activities.

“Protecting Texas kids has and will continue to be a priority for the Texas House, and I thank Representative Moody for filing this legislation that puts these children on a better track by prioritizing community resources and keeping them closer to their families,” Phelan said in a statement Thursday.

Talarico, a former public school teacher, wants lawmakers to go further. At a press conference, standing alongside state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, he announced House Bill 4356 to close the prisons. The lawmakers were surrounded by former child prisoners, teens spurred to advocate for youth prison abolition by the Tribune’s reporting, a former juvenile prison officer and other youth justice advocates.

[Texas teens embark on an idealistic quest to shut down the state’s last five youth prisons]

“I know what I was doing was wrong, but I was never taught how to do it the right way,” said Jernard Brown, a 23-year-old who as a teenager was placed into a youth prison eight hours from his Houston home.

Jernard Brown, 23, speaks about his experience being incarcerated as a young adult at a presser addressing legislative options for reforming the Texas Juvenile Justice Department at the state Capitol on March 9, 2023.

Jernard Brown, 23, speaks about his experience being incarcerated as a young adult at a presser addressing legislative options for reforming the Texas Juvenile Justice Department at the state Capitol on March 9, 2023. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Without any contact with his mom or support in the prisons, he said, “it makes you feel like life is not worth living no more, because no one cares.”

“We have kids with so much potential to be so great, but we have yet to pour our investments into them. What we do is take from them,” Brown said.

Aside from closing the state’s five youth prisons by 2030, HB 4356 would dissolve TJJD and create a new office under the state’s health department, dubbed the Office of Youth Safety and Rehabilitation. The office would enact a plan to end all youth commitments to state prisons and establish alternative services and detention options in each county by 2026.

The office would also manage funding to local community placements and develop new diversion and prevention opportunities, including mental health treatment. (More than 80% of youth placed into state-run prisons last year needed mental health treatment, according to TJJD.)

Repeated reform attempts in the past have failed, Talarico said, calling for a fundamental shift in the state’s approach. In the last 20 years, lawmakers have rebranded and retooled the system to counter the ongoing scandals of sexual abuse, physical abuse and mistreatment.

“Despite decades of reforms, this system still abuses and traumatizes kids every day,” Talarico said.

He called the system not only immoral, but ineffective and expensive. He cited research showing local services better help rehabilitate children and noted the agency spends nearly $300 million each biennium to imprison less than 600 youth.

“That’s $500,000 per child. Half a million dollars could buy you the best therapist, the best counselor, the best tutor,” the lawmaker said. “This money could be spent on doing what works, what we know works, what the evidence tells us works, which is rehabilitating kids so that they can rejoin society.”

TJJD — currently under federal investigation for an alleged pattern of abuse and mistreatment — has somewhat stabilized its staffing levels this year after it made permanent 15% emergency raises for officers, bringing the starting pay from about $36,000 to nearly $42,000. The money was gained from the agency’s many unfilled positions and by canceling a reentry program to help youth successfully leave the criminal system.

The relative stability has meant children are less often kept in their cells and other programming has resumed. But the agency is still severely limited by understaffing, with a list of children detained in crowded local jails while waiting to be admitted to TJJD to begin their sentences.

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

Talarico recognizes that his bill, which does not yet have a Senate sponsor, faces an uphill battle. But he sees it as a starting point to move the needle and is thrilled that Phelan is supporting Moody’s “Closer to Home” bill, which Talarico said complements his.

Other lawmakers, however, appear to be headed down a different path. In its time of crisis, TJJD is also under a decennial legislative review, in which lawmakers decide how and if a state agency should continue to exist. This sunset review, as it’s called, slammed the agency’s failures but largely suggested boosting its funds, not closing prisons.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, chair of the Sunset Commission, has proposed building new prisons to accommodate at least 200 more youth as state projections expect more youth to be sent to the prisons after a pandemic-era slump. The initial versions of both the House and Senate budget proposals would spend an additional $200 million to complete such a task.

Schwertner’s office did not respond to questions for this story.

Building more prisons would be a stark reversal from more than a decade of trending away from imprisoning children. With TJJD plagued by scandal for more than a decade, counties have shifted toward keeping children under local supervision and sending fewer to the state prisons, leading to the closing of eight prisons and shrinking of the imprisoned population from thousands to less than 600.

But the youth still sent to the state prisons are often the most difficult to manage because of violent behavior, severe mental health needs or both. TJJD officials told lawmakers in budget hearings this year that three new, smaller facilities would help them have specialized programming to better manage that difficult population.

“We really need a classification system that serves the individual needs of our population,” TJJD Executive Director Shandra Carter told senators last month.

The agency is asking for new facilities, on top of its existing five, for a specialized mental health unit, a “highly secure facility” for the most violent offenders, and a prison for girls.

Talarico recognized some of his colleagues in both parties have been alarmed by prison failures and have urged against a strategy of “doubling down.”

“We can either keep funding what doesn’t work, or we can finally fund what does,” he said.

Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a social justice group that has long advocated for closing the state’s five remaining youth prisons, said she would be more supportive of new, specialized facilities if the agency was also moving to close the troubled ones. She also noted that the staffing problems would not go away in new facilities, as urban areas have also struggled to keep local juvenile detention officers.

But she acknowledged that the Texas Legislature, largely led by the Senate, has become more conservative in recent years, veering back toward tough-on-crime policies after an uptick in violent crime.

“My fear is what will pass this session is nothing that is consistent with evidence or research-based practices, and all we’ll be left with is more facilities,” Fowler said.

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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