TYC Shows Little Evidence of 'Reform' at State Schools

Five months after the Texas Youth Commission reform bill was crafted to protect youth inmates, TYC is massively understaffed, with a third of all posts empty

After the firings at the Texas Youth Com­mis­sion over abuse scandals earlier this year, Kenny Love felt he was the kind of staff member the agency needed. A military veteran, former policeman, and two-time Texas Department of Correc­tions officer, when he applied in May to work at the Crockett State School in East Texas, he thought he could do some good. But with unpaid hours, hazardous working conditions, and reforms he calls cosmetic, he said he is one of many TYC staff considering quitting. "Right now I'm on medical leave," he said, "but I don't think I can go back to that mess."

While Senate Bill 103, the TYC reform bill, was crafted to protect youth inmates, it was also supposed to create a safer working environment for staff. But the changes only provided the tools for reform. Five months later, TYC is massively understaffed, with almost a third of all posts empty. "We're trying to get as many qualified people as possible into training," said TYC's director of public affairs, Jim Hurley. "We're down in numbers considerably from where we want to be, and I can't give you a hard and fast deadline. It's going to take time."

The Legislature ordered TYC to hire an additional 516 juvenile correctional officers, one for every 12 inmates, plus teaching and administrative staff. However, the money to hire them did not become available until Sept. 1, meaning TYC hadn't even hired its four new recruiting officers until Nov. 1. As of Oct. 23, TYC had 3,984 employees but 2,024 unfilled positions, including 382 of those new juvenile correctional officers. Even when those positions are filled, there may not be enough staff. The Ameri­can Correctional Association, a prison accreditation body, sets no standards for juvenile inmate-officer ratios but works facility by facility and has yet to assess the reformed centers.

The shortfall means facilities are working staff longer and harder. "You have frustrated staff, tired staff. They dread coming out there," said Love. Some, afraid of being fired if they complained, would call in sick. "You have people out there for whom this is their sole income, so they don't make waves. The call-ins are their only way of striking back." According to Love, this means some shifts at Crockett struggle on five or six corrections officers, less than half the number recommended. The new hires may not solve the problem, since they are just replacing staff who are on medical leave or quit. "It's a revolving door," Love said.

TYC employees are supposed to work a 40-hour week, with eight-hour shifts and five days on, two days off. But with staff levels so low, Love said, it's not uncommon for officers to work five 12-hour shifts and only get one day off. Staff pulled a combined 116,890 hours of overtime in February, a figure that shrank to 30,487 for September, but there's a catch. They weren't being paid for all of it. In Septem­ber alone, TYC paid out $735,933 in overtime, equal to 55% of the normal annual sum. TYC spokesman Hurley said the cash wasn't the issue, just further reform of the system. "This wasn't about budget," he said, "but the fact that they didn't have any institutional controls in place to ensure that all the overtime being worked was necessary. Since we couldn't ensure that, we suspended paying overtime, but this is almost surely a temporary measure." He said that hours worked were still being tracked, but for Love, that's not enough. "That's my money they're earning interest on," he said.

Hurley suggested that staff safety had measurably improved. Reported inmate-on-staff assaults dropped from 90 in March to 57 in May, and he put this down to the decision to remove misdemeanor offenders. "They were typically the kids that were getting into trouble time after time," Hurley said. "They're a rowdier bunch and more prone to disruption. Now we're getting kids in for more serious crimes; they know there's a disincentive for acting out."

But Love said the TYC figures are inaccurate and the danger much higher, limiting staff's ability to protect themselves or the vulnerable youths they are supposed to guard. Love said staff members feel reporting assaults internally is all but useless, so they don't file the paperwork. With secure beds for only around 10% of all inmates, the youths know there is no room to deal with all the discipline cases. "They keep the worst crimes down there but let the light stuff go," said Love. "The kids will be back before you've filed the report, laughing in your face, saying, 'I told you they wouldn't keep me.'"

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Texas Youth Commission, Texas Youth Com­mis­sion, Kenny Love, Crockett State School, Jim Hurley, Senate Bill 103, Ameri­can Correctional Association

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