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Reporter: Two Girls, Two Races, Two Very Different Stories

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Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune tells listeners about two young girls in Texas with very different paths. Earlier this year, Shaquanda Cotton, a young black girl, was imprisoned for up to seven years for pushing a hall monitor at her school. Just three months earlier, probation was given, by the same judge, to a white girl who set fire to her home. After public outcry, their lives took two different paths.


We have one more story for you about how women and girls sometimes fare in the criminal justice system. You may remember that earlier this year, we talked about the story of Shaquanda Cotton, at the time a 14-year-old black girl in Paris, Texas. She was sentenced to up to seven years in prison for pushing a hall monitor at school, while a 14-year-old white girl was given probation by the same judge for burning down her family's house.

Shaquanda Cotton was eventually released, amid a national outcry in a case that seemed to activists like yet another example of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But it turns out that for the 14-year-old white girl, the story did not end there. In fact, one could argue that her story has taken an even uglier turn than Shaquanda Cotton's.

Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt joins us now. He broke the story of Shaquanda Cotton, and he's at member station KUHF in Houston, Texas.

Hi, Howard. Welcome. How are you?

Mr. HOWARD WITT (Reporter, Chicago Tribune): Hello. I'm fine. Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Thank you. First, bring us up to speed. What happened to this young lady after she got probation? And there's a reason we're not using her name, which you're going to tell us.

Mr. WITT: Exactly. It's really quite a tragic story.

This 14-year-old white girl ended up in prison, even though the judge originally sentenced her to probation. She violated her probation a couple of times, so the judge ultimately threw up his hands and sent her off to the Texas Youth Commission - Youth Prison. Within two weeks of her arrival at the prison, she fell victim to sexual abuse. One of the guards in that prison started to sexually molest her, and that occurred over - that continued over a period of weeks. And this girl ended up mutilating herself, cutting herself. She carved the word, why, into her arm at one point.

Then she attempted suicide. During the suicide attempt, it was interrupted. One of the guards who tried to stop her from swallowing some pills, she knocked this guard to the ground. The guard was off week for a - off work for a week. And as a consequence, she was then - her sentence was extended by another six months, so she was punished for that.

MARTIN: Oh, wow.

Mr. WITT: It's - what's tragic about this case is you have the Shaquanda case, which kind of underscored problems in the Texas justice system. Now, you have this case, which goes to the heart of this long-running scandal that's been going on with the Texas youth prisons for months. There have been these revelations coming out about chronic abuses of young prisoners in the Texas youth prisons across the state in which guards have been taking advantage of them and abusing them (unintelligible).

MARTIN: And so I just need to clarify again that the reason that why we're not identifying the young lady is: Number one, she's in the juvenile system. Number two: she's a victim of sexual abuse.

Mr. WITT: Exactly.

MARTIN: And that aside, it's generally sort of a custom in the business that we don't identify victims of sexual assault and we also don't identify family members because that would lead to identifying the victims. This abuse is confirmed in her case…

Mr. WITT: Well…

MARTIN: …generally understood this occurred?

Mr. WITT: It is. In fact, this guard who abused her was subsequently arrested and indicted on multiple charges for abusing other prisoners. Her case, it looks like is also going to be added to the indictment. The investigators have interviewed her extensively. And so it sounds like she's going to become an additional case.

Part of what's outrageous, too, about this is that when her abuse was reported by another youth who saw it happening, but when this guard was not removed from contact with female inmates for four months - until four months after this abuse was first reported. And during that subsequent time, it appears he committed a lot of other abuses against youthful inmates.

MARTIN: This was witnessed by another inmate, and he's still…

Mr. WITT: Yes.

MARTIN: …wasn't taken out there.

Mr. WITT: Well, that's right.

MARTIN: How did this whole pattern become revealed? Was this pattern of abuse toward young women, young incarcerated girls discovered as a result of the Shaquanda Cotton case, or was this an ongoing investigation?

Mr. WITT: No. As it happened, this was revealed by some Texas newspapers. I believe it was the Texas Observer and also the Dallas Morning News, last January and February, started to find out about a scandal at one particular youth prison in West Texas. That quickly mushroomed and exploded. And what became clear by February and March of last year - of this year, excuse me - was that this was a chronic problem.

Ultimately, the entire leadership of the Texas Youth Commission was fired or resigned. Dozens of guards were arrested and indicted. Right now, they received more than 6,000 calls to a hotline that was set up to report incidents of abuse. There are, I believe, more than 900 open investigations going on. I mean, that was a huge scandal in the…

MARTIN: Howard, we only have a couple of seconds left so…

Mr. WITT: Sure.

MARTIN: But this young lady is still in prison?

Mr. WITT: She is still in prison, and the fact that she was molested and became a victim appears to, you know, not to be considered a mitigating factor for her case, and we'll have to see what happens now. But she continues to be incarcerated despite what happened to her.

MARTIN: And you've distinguished yourself on reporting on the Jena Six case. You've also been talking to us about this story. What do you make of this twist? You know, very briefly, it just seems as though - on the one hand, we heard about these things because of these racial angles, and there's this whole other layer of stuff here. What do you make of it?

Mr. WITT: Well, the bottom line is kids don't get treated well, whether it's in the courts or whether it's in the prison system. And regardless of race - white, black or Hispanic - kids are victimized by our system very frequently.

MARTIN: Howard Witt is the Southwest bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. He joined us from KUHF, Houston, Texas, a member station.

Howard Witt, thank you so much for speaking with us, and thank you for your reporting.

Mr. WITT: My pleasure.

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