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Every month, independent investigators visit the five juvenile prisons in Texas to evaluate how each is doing its job, and whether the children in their care are being well treated.
The continuing chaos within the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which worsened after a surge of employees quit following the pandemic, has led to children being locked in their cells for most of the day. The trend has coincided with a spike in suicidal behavior and overall distress among detained youths.
The Texas Tribune reviewed six months of these site visit reports by the Independent Ombudsman for the Texas Juvenile Justice System, spanning November 2021 to April 2022.
Between the lines of dense bureaucratese that typify such reports can be found the stories of individual teenagers whose actions depict the desperation, violence and lack of supervision that plague the state facilities.
Below are notable excerpts from these audits, with reported responses from TJJD officials and Texas Tribune annotations.
According to TJJD policy, teens on suicide watch should be monitored at least every 10 minutes, and often more frequently. It’s also notable that, perhaps because of the holiday, the youth’s parent was not notified of their son’s suicide attempt or hospitalization until three days later.
In March, the detention officer was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of tampering with a government record for allegedly writing fake entries on the teen’s suicide observation log.
Without enough staff, detained youths are sometimes left in their cells, without toilets, for up to 23 hours a day. Rotating staff move about the large campuses to let people out of their cells one by one, but children at multiple units have told investigators and their parents about using water bottles as makeshift toilets.
Ombudsman reports over the six-month period noted numerous instances of youths treated after inserting objects into their urethras. Agency data shows self-harm behavior has increased steadily at TJJD facilities over the last few years, despite the prison population dropping dramatically
Gang violence has often been reported in the lockups in recent years. The number of teens detained at TJJD facilities has shrunk dramatically over the last decade, and the ones who end up at the prisons are typically more difficult to manage for violent behavior, severe mental health needs or both.