lawmakers and the governor dismantle and investigate the scandal-wracked agency that runs the state's juvenile prisons, bitter inmates and employees emerge with accounts of institutionalized vengeance.
Written by GREGG JONES, HOLLY BECKA and DOUG J. SWANSON, Dallas Morning News
When an inmate at a state juvenile prison complained of an administrator's sexual advances, swift and merciless punishment followed: The teenager was thrown into an isolation cell "and put in shackles for over 13 hours," a Texas Rangers report revealed.
That 2004 incident at the West Texas State School, however extreme, embodies the culture of retaliation that permeates the Texas Youth Commission. It's an agency where fear and intimidation rule, inmates and employees have told The Dallas Morning News.
As lawmakers and the governor dismantle and investigate the scandal-wracked agency that runs the state's juvenile prisons, bitter inmates and employees emerge with accounts of institutionalized vengeance. Retributive violence against youth is ignored or covered up, they say. Incident reports, logbook pages, photographs and other evidence of abuse disappear.
Employees who break ranks with fellow guards or supervisors and report problems find themselves accused of abuse or other violations. Those who try to take their concerns public are punished.
"Issues of fear and intimidation are present throughout TYC," said a report by the state auditor's office released Friday. More than 40 percent of staffers at youth prisons said they were afraid of retaliation if they complained about co-workers or supervisors, a survey by the auditor's office found.
The atmosphere extends to inmates as well, who say guards often target them for filing complaints. The auditor's survey showed that 43 percent of the inmates responding said they had "first-hand knowledge of retaliation taken against a youth who filed a grievance or reported physical or sexual abuse."
Isela Gutierrez, who assists and counsels families of inmates, said the lodging of complaints carries a serious risk.
"I hear about it all the time," said Ms. Gutierrez, coordinator of the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles. "I let them know that if they file grievances, there's a serious chance of retaliation, and they need to consider that."
Beating whistleblowersIn one common form of payback, inmates say, guards instruct their favored juveniles to beat those who complain. This, many inmates say, has been a practice for years at TYC.
"That happened a lot," said Addam Boord of Dallas, incarcerated at TYC from 1996 to 1999, mostly at the Giddings State School. "If the staff didn't like you, they would have other students pick fights with you."
Sixteen-year-old Airick Browning of McKinney said that during his four-month stay at TYC, he has filed more than a dozen grievances against guards and fellow inmates. He said the youths in his dorm have made up a song about him with the words "snitches get stitches."
"I reported assaults on myself, whether it be spitting or physical assaults, or like people threatening me or anyone else. I've reported that," Airick said. "I've reported sexual acts that have been going on between students and students or staff and students. Just about everything that is not right, [that] I would get in trouble for if I didn't report it, I report it."
Fellow inmates at Giddings began taunting and threatening him a few days after his Feb. 27 assignment to Dorm 8B, he said. The name-calling soon escalated to physical assaults day and night in the dorm.
A TYC guard assigned to watch the group did nothing to stop Airick's roommates from slapping or punching him as he lay in bed, he said.
"His response was, 'Boy, shut up and quit b-i-t-c-h-i-n-g and take your a-s-s to bed," said Airick, who spelled out the words because he said he doesn't curse.
The violence against Airick intensified March 11 when another inmate kicked him as he sat on the floor with his head down, he said.
"I was sitting on the floor in the TV area, writing ... a grievance about when they urinated on my bed," Airick said. "Next thing I know, I did not see the foot – I didn't even see it because it came so fast – but I felt it. I heard like this loud boom inside of my head.
"He kicked me dead in my face and after he kicked me, I felt my teeth kind of break," he said. "I could feel somebody punching on me still, punching my head and my face. ... I had pieces of teeth in my mouth."
When his vision cleared, Airick said, he saw a guard watching the assault. And he said another guard smiled at him afterward and said he "shouldn't bite the hand that feeds" him.
Airick believes the guard's comment referred to a previous grievance he had filed against her.
TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said he could not talk about any investigation into Airick's allegations.
"By statute, we are not allowed to discuss any particular child or any particular investigation regarding a child," he said. "But I will tell you that if a situation like that is occurring, it is deplorable. ... There will be swift and severe consequences for those who are committing these kinds of acts."
Airick's mother, Dana Brockway of McKinney, said her son talked Friday with Jay Kimbrough, special master appointed by the governor to oversee TYC.
Mr. Kimbrough is part of the massive overhaul of the agency ordered by state leaders after The Dallas Morning News in mid-February disclosed a sex abuse scandal at TYC. Since then, revelations of physical abuse of inmates have poured in.
Last week, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of TYC's Evins unit found "an unacceptably high degree of physical abuse of youth by staff." Understaffing bears much of the blame, investigators determined.
At some TYC facilities, dorm guards can find themselves alone overseeing as many as 24 inmates.
"Staff feel outnumbered and scared," Ms. Gutierrez said, "so they turn to physical force."
But employees also feel threatened by their bosses, according to the state auditor's report: Only 37 percent of staffers responding agreed with the statement that management "leads by example and behaves in an ethical manner."
Retaliation for reportsAt the Crockett State School, a TYC prison in East Texas, current and former employees speak of an ethos of intimidation.
Yvonne Holmes, 49, worked at Crockett from 1999 until 2003, when she left with a knee injury. Her account of retaliation came from Crockett's Discovery dormitory, which houses mentally disturbed children. There, she said, abuse by guards and supervisors was common.
In a typical occurrence, two security supervisors came to her dormitory one night and went into an inmate's room and beat him, she said.
"Those kids had problems," she said. "You just had to work with them, and the abuse they received wasn't necessary."
Ms. Holmes recalled one incident in the summer of 2003 when a boy disrupted a group meeting of students. She watched as a guard supervisor slammed the boy's head into a pillar, threw him to the floor and rubbed his face on the carpet until it bled. A program administrator finally patted the guard supervisor on the shoulder and said gently, "That's enough."
A couple of days after the incident, the boy, with a bruised face and a swollen eye, told Ms. Holmes that infirmary staff had said he had a concussion. The boy was later released from Crockett.
Ms. Holmes recorded the incident in her daily dormitory log, which staff are required to maintain. She checked the logbook a few days later, and the page containing her description of the incident was missing, she said.
"They took it out," she said. "It was gone."
Shortly after providing a written statement supporting another guard's report on the incident, Ms. Holmes found herself being accused of abusing students.
"I never touched a kid," said Ms. Holmes, known as "Mama Holmes" to students. "Every time you reported things, you got retaliated against."
Brenda Faulk, 45, a correctional officer at Crockett from 1997 until 2005, said it was common for documentation of abuses – broken bones, black eyes, concussions – to go missing. Photographs of injuries would vanish from infirmary files. Logbook pages would disappear.
Roy Johnson, 46, who worked at Crockett from 1997 until 2004, said that when he started his shift one morning, he found a boy who had been held in leg irons all night – a violation of TYC policy. When Mr. Johnson noted the violation, supervisors "started badgering me, harassing me for saying something."
"If you don't do what they say, they write you up on every little thing they can think of," he said. "I'll stand in a courtroom and say it."
Mr. Johnson recalled that nurses in the infirmary took pictures of a black eye suffered by an inmate after he was struck by a security supervisor. "The boy's eye was so bad, it was swollen shut," he said. "When they went back to his file, the picture was gone. They destroyed it."
Mr. Johnson said he also witnessed one supervisor shredding incident reports.
Fear and punishmentManagers sometimes retaliated against complaint-filers, employees said, by assigning them 12-hour shifts – and then ignoring requests for bathroom breaks.
On one occasion, Ms. Faulk said, she waited more than eight hours to go to the bathroom, fearing that if she went without permission she would receive a disciplinary write-up. She finally wet herself rather than risk a disciplinary action, she said, and had to wear an inmate uniform the rest of her shift.
Ms. Holmes said she once called three times for a "rover" to come from the security office to cover her dormitory while she took a bathroom break. After more than six hours, fearing she was going to wet herself, she ran into the dorm bathroom. When she came out, a supervisor was waiting and issued her a disciplinary citation for leaving the dorm unattended.
Two former correctional officers at Crockett recounted similar incidents in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in January in U.S. District Court in Lufkin. Angela Jones and Vanessa Price allege that they were repeatedly subjected to crude sexual propositions from male supervisors and co-workers while working at the school in 2006. When they refused the advances, they were given repeated 12-hour shifts and no relief for bathroom breaks, the suit alleges.
Ms. Jones and Ms. Price alleged that they reported the sexual harassment to supervisors, and were told their complaints were addressed. But the sexual harassment continued.
Ms. Price confronted one of the rovers who was to relieve dorm staff for bathroom breaks and asked him why he hadn't responded to her calls. "They are out to get you because you won't 'put out,' " the rover allegedly told Ms. Price. "They thought you'd be easy."
In a response to the lawsuit, filed last month, TYC attorneys denied the allegations.
Austin connectionSeveral current and former employees said that senior officials at Crockett warned staff they had good connections at TYC headquarters in Austin, and that any complaints they raised wouldn't go very far.
"To stay there, you had to keep your mouth and eyes closed," said Ms. Holmes.
Eleven current and former employees interviewed by The News blamed Don Freeman, superintendent of Crockett since 2001, for the atmosphere of intimidation and retaliation. Mr. Freeman frequently reminds employees that they need to "get on the train" if they want to work there, they said.
One of those raising allegations against Mr. Freeman was Phil Watson, a security officer who started working at Crockett in 1982 as youth activity supervisor and later became head of security.
Mr. Watson said he and Mr. Freeman were at odds almost immediately, and they clashed several times. According to Mr. Watson, Mr. Freeman told him: "You're the first person I'm going to deal with."
In one instance a few years ago, Mr. Watson said, an emotionally disturbed student climbed onto the roof of the education building in his underwear and asked to see a psychologist.
Mr. Watson said the superintendent, frustrated at how long it was taking to resolve the crisis, ordered him to get up there and "throw the [expletive] off the roof."
Instead, Mr. Watson said he decided to talk the distraught student down by promising him an appointment with a psychologist.
Darrel Jones, a former security supervisor at Crockett, said he was standing next to the superintendent when he issued the order. Mr. Jones was fired in 2002 after 11 years on the job. He said he was accused of sexual harassment, but he believes his firing was in retaliation for reporting abuse against inmates. He appealed his firing to TYC in Austin and lost.
Mr. Watson said it wasn't long before he, too, started facing retaliation. He said he was accused of failing to replace a VCR tape on a dormitory security camera. For years, Mr. Watson said, he – like others – had reported that the VCR was broken, but nothing was done about it.
Later, Mr. Watson said, he filed a public records request seeking copies of Crockett's tape-changing logs. He said Crockett's director of security told him they couldn't find them. Mr. Watson said he suspects they were destroyed. "All I know is when I requested them, they came up missing."
In March 2004, after 22 years at Crockett, Mr. Watson was fired. Among the allegations against him was that he had failed to feed and shower eight students over an eight-month period.
Mr. Watson protested his firing, and after a hearing conducted by TYC officials from Austin, he was reinstated in September 2004 and now works on the security staff.
Mr. Freeman declined several opportunities to speak with The News . "I can't comment," he told a reporter Friday night after listening to a recitation of the allegations. "You'd have to refer that to our central office."
A TYC spokesman in Austin, asked Thursday about the Crockett allegations, later said that relevant records could not be retrieved in time to comment for this story.
Giving voiceJobs at the Crockett State School pay well by local standards – starting salary for a guard is about $1,800 a month.
"People need their job, and it's a state job with good benefits and retirement," said Diane Wallace, 60, a nurse in the Crockett infirmary from 1993 to 1996. "In a small town like Crockett, that's part of their leverage."
State officials reviewing the TYC problems have expressed concerns about the remote locations of many youth prisons and recommended possibly moving some of them to bigger cities, as well as removing TYC management from the grievance process.
Ms. Wallace said she has long been haunted by her failure to speak out about abuses she witnessed at Crockett. The recent scrutiny of TYC has finally given the kids abused in state custody a chance to be heard, she said.
"Everybody finally feels like we've got a voice, the kids have a voice," said Ms. Wallace. "Somebody has finally taken the tape off everybody's