‘Out of control’: Report on juvenile prison ‘gang war’ draws lawmakers’ attention
Tensions between the Crips and the Bloods had been brewing for several months at the Gainesville State School by the time the chaos spilled out into the six-day mass disturbance that started in a few of the dorms before spreading to most of the campus.
Staff and inmates later described the conflict as part of an ongoing “gang war “ at the scandal-plagued facility, with planned “hits” on guards, fights and vandalism, according to state documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle that reveal far deeper problems than previously acknowledged.
The incidents first reported earlier this week by the Chronicle prompted state lawmakers to begin planning an “urgent” committee meeting to tackle the apparent chaos and persistent understaffing at the North Texas juvenile lock-up.
“It’s an out-of-control place and quite frankly the leadership knows it,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “They have for months known that Gainesville is a danger to the youth, the staff and the community.”
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Even as Whitmire promised action, Texas Juvenile Justice Department officials pushed back against the earlier coverage of the mass disturbance previously described as a riot.
“There simply was no ongoing six-day riot,” Texas Juvenile Justice Department Executive Director Camille Cain said in a statement this week. “To be clear, there were a series of disturbances over the course of several evenings involving youth activating fire alarms in an effort to exit the dorms and cause disruptions.”
The turbulence comes barely a year after a new executive director took the helm, hoping to clean up an agency still reeling from a 2017 sex abuse scandal in which multiple officers were accused of having or trying to have sex with teenaged inmates.
In late November, up to 40 teens blew dust into smoke detectors to set off fire alarms and release door locks, then fled from their units and ran around the sprawling campus.
Spurred by boredom, gang conflicts and a desire to protest, the youths destroyed property and assaulted staff and each other in a “major campus-wide disruption of facility operations,” according to reports from the Office of the Independent Ombudsman.
The most serious outbursts began on Nov. 29 and recurred regularly through Dec. 4, following the transfer of certain gang leaders a few months earlier that created a power vacuum and left kids started vying for leadership and control.
“Our staff was in control of the facility at all times,” agency spokesman Brian Sweany said earlier this week.. “Since these disruptions, we have worked hard to address those issues that led to these events and have worked closely with staff to ensure that the campus is moving forward and enacting the agency’s reform agenda.”
Now, documents show that “major campus-wide disruptions” continued long after November.
“The Crips are currently considered to be ‘on top,’” the Office of the Independent Ombudsman wrote in a newly obtained December report. “The Pirus have also become involved. There is currently a vying for rank within the Crips. The issues are likely not over and target date(s) for continued disruptions are possibly (sic) during the holidays.”
One staffer described the facility as the “Wild West,” and Whitmire confirmed that he’d been fielding reports of “rampant gang activity.”
Some teens reported that their peers were putting “hits” on the staff, ordering targeted assaults on guards, according to the report.
The guards, in turn, appeared to be “enmeshed in the ‘youth culture’” in some cases, calling some teens their “sons,” the report found. In one instance, a corrections officer went to the gang leader of the teen who assaulted him and asked why the hit had been called. In another case, an inmate “put out a hit” on another kid who’d assaulted a guard he was close with.
In a written response included with the ombudsman report, the agency disputed the inmate and staff descriptions of the conflict and sought to reframe the phrasing.
“We do not have a ‘gang war,’ but we do have a gang issue which may represent itself in a myriad of ways,” agency officials wrote. “Facility administration will continue to work with staff to properly identify the issues so that the term is not misused.”
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The teens themselves also offered solutions.
“To prevent future disruptions,” according to the December ombudsman report, “they said the facility should supervise them more closely, keep them busy, give them something to look forward to, and allow daily outside and/or gym time.”
Other teens — including some who described the November and December disruption as the result of boredom instead of gang activity — concurred with that assessment.
“Being in your room all day — every day — is like a hamster in a cage with no wheel to run on,” one teen told the oversight officials in December. “You can only handle it for so long.”
Following the six days of mass disturbances, the facility went into lockdown and called in extra tactical officers from other units. Four high-ranking officials were fired and, weeks later, the equine therapy program was shut down. Cain and other officials from Austin toured the facility and the ombudsman’s office visited in mid-December.
During the lockdown that started on Dec. 7, some youths said they weren’t getting therapy and were only being let out to go to the bathroom. Other teens claimed they’d been left shackled and handcuffed even while brushing their teeth and using the restroom.
Officials said earlier this week that teens are no longer restrained to go to the bathroom at night, and that the facility ended the practice once the fire alarms were fixed.
Two kids said they’d been forced to defecate in empty food trays because they weren’t let out for the restroom, according to the December report. One teen said he’d been pepper sprayed “for no reason.”
When the ombudsman visited in January there were so many kids in the security unit as a result of bad behavior that the facility was forced to start putting youths in outside secure recreation areas until cells opened up.
In the same visit, oversight officials found three kids in the security unit had refused to leave for a number of days due to safety concerns —but no one could tell exactly how long because the requisite documentation was missing. One of the teens told the ombudsman that he wouldn’t return to his dorm because he wasn’t in a gang and “the gangs don’t like that.”
Some of the data showed signs of improvement. The uses of pepper spray decreased from November to December, as did the numbers of assaults and attempts to flee apprehension. Gang-related activities increased, however, according to the report.
One of the teens’ complaints centered on severe understaffing at the rural lock-up, a persistent problem that leaves fewer officers to take kids to activities and tend to their needs. At the time of the outburst, roughly 30 percent of guard positions were unfilled. By mid-January, that figure had increased to 37 percent.
As a result, officers have regularly been forced to work 12- and 16-hour shifts, the January site visit report found. To keep adequate staffing levels, supervisors and case management workers sometime fill in on direct supervision roles.
With so few staff, sometimes kids were sent around the facility unescorted, and sometimes one officer would be left to oversee more than a dozen juveniles. When oversight officials walked into one of the dorms in November, a corrections officer asked if they were there to relieve her because she’d been working for 14 hours.
Seth Hutchinson, vice president of the state employee union, said that using case managers and supervisors to do officers’ jobs makes it challenging to uphold a commitment to rehabilitation.
“TJJD is supposed to be the place of last resort for the most serious offenders — it’s supposed to be a second chance for these kids but it can’t be that if they don’t have the staffing to make it happen,” he said. “If the state is serious about rehabilitation they need to get serious about the staffing and turnover crisis in TJJD.”
The agency disputed the Chronicle’s previous description of the outburst of violence as a six-day riot.
“At no time did the actions of the youth threaten to compromise the security of the facility,” Cain said Wednesday. “I do not say this to minimize the seriousness of these events; I do it to set an inaccurate record straight. In fact, the Office of the Independent Ombudsman, who reports directly to the Office of the Governor and the Legislature, never uses the word ‘riot’ in the report that forms the basis of this reporting.”
An agency spokesman also stressed that the chaos did not occur continuously for the six days but instead in periodic outbursts.
“The most important lesson from these incidents is the subsequent response by the agency to improve the campus environment and ensure that staff are properly trained to de-escalate and better respond to disruptive situations,” Cain said. The agency on Friday did not provide additional response beyond the Wednesday press release and the responses included in the ombudsman reports.
In those responses, the agency outlined corrective plans, though some of the issues surrounding paperwork and documentation were marked as resolved. Agency officials wrote in mid-February that they would implement major weekly cleaning efforts to combat gang graffiti, adjust their protocols around inmate movement, and reiterate to staff the legal necessity of good behavior.
“The campus is focusing on building professional relationships between youth and staff,” the agency wrote. “The gang-related activities remain a standing action item during weekly dorm management team meetings.”
Whitmire accused the agency leadership of “ignoring the dangers” and pointed out that, in the past, there’d been talk of removing all youths from Gainesville.
“I’m terribly disappointed that they are not considering this a more urgent matter than they are,” he said. “I will be in discussion with them to see what the leadership plan of action is. Doing nothing is not an option.”
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