‘Worse Than the Wild West’: State Reports Reveal ‘Gang War’ at Texas Juvenile Prison

Keri Blakinger, Houston Chronicle, March 11, 2019

A second Texas juvenile prison is embroiled in what inmates and staff describe as a “gang war,” with a string of assaults and disruptions, including a 33-person fight and bad behavior so widespread that officials were forced to put some of the dorms on “shut-down” status.

The unrest at Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg is the latest in a growing string of problems revealed in oversight reports that are attracting the attention of state lawmakers, who are set to tackle the agency’s troubles this week in a Senate committee hearing.

“It truly is probably worse than the Wild West,” said Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which will take up the matter Tuesday. It’s not clear what the answer is, but the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is “at a turning point,” according to the Houston Democrat.

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Problems in the Valley

Two months ago, a cluster of teens in the Evins rec yard started throwing punches, a disturbance divided along racial lines with black and Hispanic youth fighting each other, according to a site visit report from the Office of the Independent Ombudsman.

{snip} It was just one in a string of assaults and major disruptions that same month at the South Texas lock-up, which holds just over 110 boys.

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The conflict escalated to the point that two of the dorms were “shut down” due to “gang issues, assaults and other safety issues” when oversight officials visited in January. Another dorm was so chronically disruptive that staff dubbed it “The Jungle” given the frequent “behavior and safety violations.”

As at Gainesville, teens were ordering “hits” on officers, according to the report, though spokesman Brian Sweany stressed that those hits are assaults and not “how the general public thinks about a ‘hit’ from the gangster movies.”

Despite the variety of problems laid out in the ombudsman’s January report, the agency pushed back on the use of specific terminology, and also laid out moves to address the problems through transfers and safety plans.

“We do not have a ‘gang war’ at Evins. We do have a gang issue,” officials wrote in the response section of the report. “Characterizing our challenges as ‘gang wars’ misrepresents the risk and obscures the appropriate measures required to promote safety and security. The facility will work with staff to properly identify the issue so that the term is not used improperly. The youth involved have aligned their loyalties along race, common geography, and other similarities more than gang influences.”

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In previous reports, oversight officials noted similar concerns last fall, with kids throwing food, flipping over tables and, in one case, assaulting a staffer badly enough to cause “serious bodily injury.” The spokesman last week declined to explain, citing medical privacy laws.

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A Path Forward

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Today, only about 850 kids are in the state’s five juvenile prisons. And while reformers and lawmakers generally agree that’s a good thing, weeding out the lower-level offenses means that the kids still locked up are some of the highest-needs teens in the system.

“The problem is that the make-up of juvenile justice has completely changed,” Whitmire said. “We used to send school truants there — now, you have to be a convicted felon, and what’s happened is that we haven’t adapted the locations or the personnel for youth that have been convicted of violent felonies.”

On top of that, the remaining prisons are on sprawling rural campuses, where it’s hard to retain staff and difficult to supervise unruly youth. Whitmire advocated for sending some of the older youth to the adult prison system — especially those with a history of assault and gang involvement.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, recently proposed solving the problem with a budget rider requiring the closure of Gainesville by September 2020. Whether or not the current scrutiny leads to any prison closures, Wu said, municipalities can look at ways to keep kids out of lock-ups.

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