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Crisis-Prone Texas Juvenile Facilities Look to Reform

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Crisis-Prone Texas Juvenile Facilities Look to Reform

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Crisis-Prone Texas Juvenile Facilities Look to Reform

Crisis-Prone Texas Juvenile Facilities Look to Reform

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15822844/15817012" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is the second report in a two-part series.

At Evins Regional Juvenile Center each dorm is split into pods with 24 metal beds. i

At Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, Texas, each dorm is split into pods with 24 metal beds and two metal tables bolted to the floor. Correctional officers monitor the dorms from a control center in the middle of the complex. Jason Beaubien, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jason Beaubien, NPR
At Evins Regional Juvenile Center each dorm is split into pods with 24 metal beds.

At Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, Texas, each dorm is split into pods with 24 metal beds and two metal tables bolted to the floor. Correctional officers monitor the dorms from a control center in the middle of the complex.

Jason Beaubien, NPR
Michael, 19, is serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated robbery. i

Michael, 19, is serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated robbery. He had his eyelids tattooed by another teen in Evins. His left eyelid says "11" and his right eyelid says "12." Jason Beaubien, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jason Beaubien, NPR
Michael, 19, is serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated robbery.

Michael, 19, is serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated robbery. He had his eyelids tattooed by another teen in Evins. His left eyelid says "11" and his right eyelid says "12."

Jason Beaubien, NPR

The Texas juvenile corrections system is in a deep crisis. Allegations of physical and sexual abuse at youth prisons in Texas have led to arrests and firings of top officials and prompted a push to reform.

Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, Texas, has played a central role in the scandals rocking the Texas Youth Commission. The center is one of 22 youth prisons run by the Texas Youth Commission and it is emblematic of the crisis facing the commission.

Failing to Protect Youth

Evins, a high-security facility located in a dusty little town in the Rio Grand valley just miles from the Mexico border, receives young offenders from around the state, including Dallas, Houston, Beaumont and even El Paso, which is 800 miles away. A 14-foot chain-link fence surrounds the compound, which houses 240 teens. Inside, boys in grey T-shirts and black athletic shorts, under the close watch of guards, march across the 100-acre campus.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report saying that conditions at the 240-bed prison violate the constitutional rights of the youth confined there. The report said that assaults at the facility are five times the national average and that the institution, "fails to adequately protect the youths in its care from youth and staff violence."

The problems at Evins are numerous. Like most Texas juvenile detention facilities, it is understaffed. There have been riots. In March, the superintendent was fired. Juan Gonzales, an employee for 16 years at Evins, was promoted to the facility's assistant superintendent in September. He says youth offenders, who range in age from 13 to 20, come to Evins for myriad crimes.

"We don't have a lot of kids for murder," he says, "because there are other programs that specialize in those kinds of kids. But from aggravated assaults to burglary, sexual assaults, anything like that."

Young Offenders Get No Privacy

One of the most problematic areas at Evins are the open-bay, 96-bed dormitories. Each dorm is split into pods with 24 metal beds and two metal tables bolted to the floor. Correctional officers monitor the dorms from a control center in the middle of the complex. Michael, who's serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated robbery, says there are often fights at night and there's never any privacy.

"You're right next to everybody," Michael says. "When you take showers everybody's right there. When you use the restroom somebody's right next to you. No matter what you do, you ain't got no privacy."

Michael is hoping to be paroled when he turns 20, but he also could be sent to an adult prison to finish his sentence. He worries that if he gets into fights here, it will hurt his chances for parole. But he says it's hard to stay out of trouble "because there are a lot of younger kids and they don't know how to act. The hardest thing is keeping from beating them up. It's hard trying to maintain control to get out of here."

Texas Seeking Alternatives

For those residents who can't maintain control, there is an isolation area called the Security Unit where as many as 30 people are kept in isolation cells. All the cells are occupied. In one cell, a 13-year-old near the door screams profanities and bangs on his cell walls. Assistant Superintendent Gonzales says teens can be held in this isolation unit — at times just until they calm down — or for as long as 90 days.

By comparison, in Missouri, there are only nine isolation cells in the entire state for a system serving 1,000 youth offenders. Evins, along with the rest of the facilities run by the Texas Youth Commission, is attempting to change and to become a bit more like Missouri, where the focus is on small, treatment-orientated group homes.

Missouri has reaped the benefits of an alternative system. Tim Decker, the director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services, says Missouri's recidivism rate is less than 10 percent. According to the Texas Youth Commission report, the recidivism rate in Texas tops 50 percent.

Evins is shutting down one of its large dorms and building individual cells. It also offers education and counseling for its residents, but in this isolated corner of the state, it's often difficult to attract and keep professional staff. Will Harrell, who earlier this year was appointed as the ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission, credits Missouri with offering a model for reform, but he says whatever changes are adopted in Texas will be unique to the state and will take time.

"It's a transition and a difficult one at that," Harrell says, "but everyone needs to understand that it took many years to get to the crisis that imploded the agency earlier this year, and it's going to take a while to stabilize the agency and move forward."

Harrell says progress is being made, but he also warns that it will take increased resources and political will to build a safer, more effective juvenile corrections system in the Lone Star State.

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