Another TYC Prison in Trouble

What happened to Coke County Juvenile Justice Center?

Sen. Juan Chuy Hinojosa
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa

On paper, the privately run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center was one of the better facilities used by the Texas Youth Com­mis­sion. Owned and operated by private-prison firm GEO Group, the 200-bed juvenile center was TYC's Contract Facility of the Year in 2005. Even after the massive abuse scandal that engulfed the agency earlier this year, it extended its contract in June. But on Oct. 2, TYC removed all 197 inmates and terminated GEO's contract. The next day, TYC fired seven staff members involved in overseeing private-contract care, including the four on-site quality-assurance monitors whose job it was to ensure standards were met. Another staff member resigned. TYC has now launched a criminal investigation.

According to Jim Hurley, TYC's director of public affairs, this was the result of worrying failures in the agency's in-house monitoring of private contracts. "What we have to depend on is that our contract care staff is doing their job and reporting what they find," Hurley said. "I have no confidence that this is the case."

"I'm not surprised at what we found at Coke," said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, author of last session's TYC-reforming Senate Bill 103. "GEO Group has a long history of problems and litigations, not only in Texas but around the country."

The removal and firings came a week after two separate investigations into Coke: one by TYC investigators ordered by acting Executive Director Dimitria Pope after receiving a series of worrying reports, and a separate one by independent ombudsman Will Har­rell. In his report, Harrell describes inhuman conditions. Insects infested the dorms, where children slept on mats on the floor, and sheets were visibly dirty. His worst criticism is reserved for the security dorm. Calling it "malodorous and dark," he notes that inmates were only let out to shower, with no exercise or recreation. Education was a crossword or math puzzle shoved through the slot in the door. Bad as these conditions were, three inmates had voluntarily self-referred themselves to the security dorm to avoid gangs. Threats of inmate-on-inmate violence caused the greatest "sense of fear and intimidation" Harrell had ever experienced. Understaffing, long seen as one of the pivotal problems with TYC, was still unresolved: 44 of the 105 staff positions were empty, and the facility was having trouble finding new recruits because of negative publicity about earlier scandals.

However, Harrell inspected the facility on Sept. 24, and while Hurley applauded his report's content, he was concerned that he did not receive a copy until after his office's own investigation was complete. "If I'm the ombudsman, and I'm out there, I'm not going to go away, write a report, and then not send it to the one person who can actually make changes."

According to Hurley, the most worrying fact is that the on-site quality-assurance monitors had given the facility a clean bill of health. In his report, Harrell singled them out for criticism, writing, "With so many Q/A's assigned to this single facility, more than my staff for the entire state, why do these problems persist?" While Coke was the only privately run secure facility, TYC has now launched a full investigation into all its contract services. "We thought we had good reports," Hurley said. "The people who were a part of this were longtime TYC employees, but at this point we have no confidence in reports we have seen."

While condemning the conditions at Coke, Hinojosa argued that this should not be seen as a failure of the reforms put in place last session. "SB 103 worked the way it was supposed to work," he said. "The ombudsman found abuses and reported them to TYC. Obviously, the monitors were not doing their job and have now been exposed for their incompetence."

The removal of TYC inmates from Coke did not mean its closure, however. In a press release, GEO CEO George C. Zoley merely said he was "disappointed" by TYC's decision and would try to rent the prison out to other state or federal agencies. "What GEO has done at this facility is shameful," Hurley said. "They had to choose not to staff this facility the way it needed to be staffed and not to maintain it the way it needed to be maintained. They made a bottom-line decision, but you can't put a price on the health and safety of kids."

Hinojosa, who said he is philosophically opposed to private prisons, argued that Texas must move away from large commercial facilities in remote areas and toward smaller facilities, closer to inmates' families and adequate oversight. "Incarcerating adults or youth is a function of the state," Hinojosa said. "These companies are there to make a profit, but the state is there to comply with the Constitution."

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Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, Texas Youth Commission, GEO Group, Jim Hurley, Juan Chuy Hinojosa, Will Harrell, George C. Zoley

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