Commentary: End Texas’ long history of abusing juveniles in detention

  • William S. Bush
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Updated Dec 15, 2017
“It is long past time for our leaders to stop putting the best interests of abusive and failing institutions over the needs of our children and youth,” writes William S. Bush. (Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post)

Ten years ago, I published a commentary in this newspaper on the physical and sexual abuse of youth in Texas’ juvenile correctional facilities. Noting that adult officials had participated in or sanctioned the abuse of youth placed in their care, I warned that the state had traveled this path several times before. Today’s reports sadly echo the lurid inventory of abuses that has characterized juvenile correctional facilities in Texas over the past century.

Indeed, the Gainesville State School has a checkered history. Founded in 1915 to serve delinquent girls, Gainesville has been investigated by state authorities repeatedly since its inception. A series of abuse scandals in the late 1930s culminated in the firing of the superintendent amid allegations of physical abuse, “deplorable” living conditions, and a “non-existent” educational program. In 1952, a 16-year-old girl from Houston escaped from Gainesville having “cracked from the strain” of serving nearly 200 consecutive days in solitary confinement.

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Most notoriously, during the discovery phase of a class-action lawsuit in the 1970s, investigators discovered the use of part-time mental health professionals, overuse of psychotropic drugs, and punishments meted out disproportionately against black and Latina inmates. At the largest state facility for boys, staff routinely staged fights between inmates for their own amusement, a practice that has resurfaced in today’s allegations. The 1970s lawsuit also uncovered how prison-like institutions could frustrate the intentions of even well-trained, well-meaning professional staff, forcing them to focus on control and order rather than education and treatment.

That lawsuit, Morales v. Turman, transformed juvenile corrections in Texas for a generation. Thousands of youth were returned to their communities — and the two largest juvenile facilities were shut down. More fundamentally, Texas began to support community-based diversion and rehabilitation programs for the first time. The revolution, however, was unfinished because it left some large, prison-like, remotely located facilities intact.

As a result, when a national panic over so-called “superpredators” erupted a generation later, politicians could point to the need to build more “youth prisons” as a solution. We now know that the cure was far worse than the disease. Violent youth crime, predicted to increase, instead dropped precipitously by the early 2000s, while episodes of abuse in juvenile facilities once again began to skyrocket.

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In 2007, the public confronted the painful results of a long history of failed or half-completed policy choices. Once again, as in the 1970s, officials sought to shutter the facilities that had served as incubators of abuse. And once again, they ran into opposition from local populations and their elected representatives who worried about the economic impact and about mass layoffs of staff. As a result, some facilities, such as the notorious Victory Field boot camp and the older Corsicana facility, were shut down in the face of local protest, while others, such as Gainesville, were left untouched.

Politicians have halted attempts to shut down notorious juvenile facilities repeatedly since at least the 1940s. Indeed, the core principle in such decisions was best captured by a citizens group during the 1947 legislative session, when they offered to speak out “any time the best interest of the institution was at stake” – a revealing play on the founding principle of juvenile justice, which places “the best interests of the child” at its center.

It is long past time for our leaders to stop putting the best interests of abusive and failing institutions over the needs of our children and youth. The historical evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible. We can, and must, do better.

Bush is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.