Guards at a state youth lockup designed to calm aggressive youths instead engaged them in fights, throwing the incarcerated teenagers down on concrete floors and punching them — in what state officials initially wrote off as “horseplay.”
The revelation marks the latest sign of continued trouble at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, already facing intense legislative pressure to correct lingering problems in the aftermath of a sex-abuse scandal six years ago that brought sweeping reforms.
Legislative leaders last spring made clear that the agency had one last chance to clean up its act — or face a possible breakup of its operations when lawmakers return to Austin in 2015.
Internal reports obtained Wednesday by the American-Statesman show that the assaults involving staff and youths assigned to the Phoenix Program at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility went on for months. The fights at the facility in Mart, east of Waco, might have started as early as May.
So-called fight clubs at lockups in other states where guards allowed inmates to fight each other have made headlines and resulted in criminal charges in recent years. But none of those involved guards as active participants, officials acknowledged Wednesday — making the Texas cases even more surprising.
Authorities said the correctional officers involved, who they wouldn’t identify, had at least five years of experience. The youths, whose names are confidential under state law, were all age 15 and serving time for various violent and nonviolent crimes.
In one video from August, “one male staff would take youth one by one and pick them up (and) slam them to the floor and lay on them, pinning them on the floor,” states a report by the agency’s independent ombudsman, Debbie Unruh. “The youth could be seen flailing his legs and arms. The staff would ‘complete’ the pinning and then move on to another youth repeating the act.”
Two other guards watched, the report states.
In 15 minutes, six youths “were slammed to the floor and pinned by the staff,” the report continues.
Two episodes in September occurred inside cells. After being slammed to the floor those youths exchanged punches with the guard, according to the report.
In one case, a guard pinned a youth down and repeatedly punched him in the ribs.
In a second case, “the staff member and the youth reportedly exchanged multiple punches and both parties suffered injuries to their faces” before a supervisor broke up the fight, an internal report reads. The incident wasn’t recorded by a cell camera because the guard gave the youth a tissue to cover the lens before the fight began, according to the report.
“The youth suffered a bloody nose and black eye, and the staff member suffered a cut over his left eye,” the report states. “There was no ‘horseplay’ involved in this situation.”
The report noted that such assaults — staff and youths called it “wrestling” — were common on the evening shift in the dorm housing the Phoenix Program, a special treatment initiative established a year ago to counsel and calm aggressive youths who are behind bars.
Concerning the fights with guards, at least one youth told an investigator he “liked the behavior. … This is just the staff being friendly with them.”
“The youth stated that the practice was for the staff and youth to trade punches in the ribs until one or the other gave up,” the ombudsman report states. “Some youth claimed they did not want to participate but felt they would be made fun of if they refused.”
Mike Griffiths, executive director of the youth justice agency, didn’t return a phone call. Agency spokesman Jim Hurley said three employees have been fired — including the two guards who were caught on camera fighting — and four others have been disciplined and reassigned.
“This isn’t horseplay, it’s inexcusable and inappropriate conduct,” Hurley said. “We have zero tolerance at this agency for this kind of behavior.”
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, an architect of the reforms after the sex abuse scandal, said he was disgusted, distressed and disappointed by the news.
“This agency already has a terrible track record, and this is another failure,” said Whitmire, D-Houston. “Six years after we started working to correct the problems, they’re still there. It’s time for the buck to stop at the top at what appears to continue to be an inherently poorly run agency.”
Hurley said the incidents were fully investigated and referred for prosecution. One internal report said that a McLennan County grand jury refused to indict the guards on Oct. 23, and dismissed possible charges.
McLennan County prosecutors in Waco didn’t immediately return phone calls seeking details.
Along with details of the fights, the ombudsman report blasted agency officials for sloppy training, inexperienced staff and a hands-off approach by top agency brass that contributed to lax supervision and other problems in the Phoenix Program. Those were some of the same issues cited in other Texas Juvenile Justice Department problems in recent years, even by officials at the time the sex-abuse scandal made headlines.
The ombudsman report notes that disarray was evident in some Phoenix Program staff meetings that degenerated into “cursing matches” and other “situations where staff members were threatening one another.” Officials didn’t intervene to stop the problems, the report states.
In addition, the ombudsman report said youths in the Phoenix Program weren’t being properly treated for their aggressive behavior — and weren’t being seen by counselors as often as they should be.
“The Phoenix Program has detoured from its original design as a structured, self-contained behavior treatment program,” the report continues, laying blame for the fights and other problems on top agency officials. “It is now a separate housing unit for difficult youth, providing little or no specialized programming. … TJJD’s failure to maintain and supervise the program has resulted in behaviors like the ones that instigated this review.”