Texas juvenile prison changes questioned

Dallas_Nearly 10 months after reports of inmate abuse first surfaced, not everyone agrees with claims of progress in reforming the agency that oversees the Texas juvenile prison system.

State lawmakers ordered the Texas Youth Commission to revamp its programs and change its managers after the scandal broke. But since then, inmate abuse allegations have risen, staffing shortages persist and controversy remains over the continued use of pepper spray on juveniles.

Jon Halt, a member of a watchdog group and whose teenage son was sexually assaulted by another inmate in a juvenile prison, said the changes have been minute.

"They still treat kids like dirt," he told The Dallas Morning News for a story in Sunday's editions.

The commission's own assessment of its progress is more positive. "I'm going to say excellent," said Dimitria Pope, the commission's acting executive director.

News reports in February revealed that officials at a West Texas youth prison had been accused of sexually abusing inmates. The revelations that followed included reports of youth beatings, lax medical care and a culture of retaliation against whistle-blowers.

Legislation passed in May was supposed to address the problems and, to some extent, it did, according to one lawmaker.

"We probably don't have management raping kids now," said state Rep. Jerry Madden.

Madden, who sponsored the reform bill, cited other encouraging signs. Youths who commit misdemeanors are no longer sent to the commission and an independent ombudsman has hired staff. New guards are getting more training and a stronger internal investigations unit has pursued dozens of cases of employee misconduct.

"I'm beginning to have a little confidence that improvements are being made," he said. "But we need to see results."

However, Dr. Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said he believes the state juvenile prison system is locked into an outmoded model based on punishment dealt from large, remote prisons.

"The way they're going, a correctional model, is a dead loser," he said. "That's not going to get them anyplace. It's never gotten anyone anyplace, except court."

Krisberg was part of a commission-appointed task force that produced a report that the agency rejected this year. The task force advocated a "home-like environment" for inmates, among other things.

David Springer, chairman of the advisory task force, said the agency seems better off in some respects, but worse in others. The commission may not be able to fix itself, he said.

"It's an uphill battle that I'm not sure can be climbed," he said.

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