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Youths trapped in Texas prison system

By MAY ZHOU in Houston | China Daily | Updated: 2022-08-15 10:09

Nearly 600 youths are reportedly trapped in the Texas juvenile prison system said to be on the brink of collapse because of understaffing.

Many spend up to 23 hours a day in cells, use water bottles as makeshift toilets, routinely hurt themselves to get attention from staff or attempt suicide, The Texas Tribune reported last week.

On Tuesday, following the Tribune's report on dire conditions in the state's five youth prisons, a Texas legislative hearing looked for possible solutions.

Shandra Carter, acting director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, told the hearing that without major funding the prison system will struggle to recruit employees and regain control over the safety and treatment of almost 600 incarcerated youths.

Following the hearing, 34 House Democrats sent Republican Governor Greg Abbott a letter asking him to bring lawmakers together immediately in a special legislative session to address the situation. Abbott's office did not immediately respond to the letter.

The department was created in 2011 following reports of sexual abuse in state juvenile facilities and significant operational problems. However, problems have continued, and a state legislative report said that since the department was created it "has been caught in a seemingly endless cycle of crises and instability".

Last October the US Justice Department opened an investigation into the department to see if it provides "reasonable protection from physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents, excessive use of chemical restraints and excessive use of isolation".

Due to understaffing, teachers and case workers were assigned to security roles to supervise the imprisoned youths last year. However, "this strategy further increased frustrations, safety concerns, and turnover", the report said.

An inspection report of a facility in the city of Gainesville in April described some of the situation: "This staff reported youths have been issued additional water bottles and cups to relieve themselves while they are locked in their rooms."

Over the weekend, youths are often locked in cramped cells up to 23 hours a day. A severe staff shortage has prevented the department from accepting newly sentenced juveniles from county jails.

In 2020 Abbott cut the department's budget by 5 percent, ascribing it to the pandemic. The legislature rejected its requests for various funding and the state took away some of its federal funding.

When Abbott took away tens of millions of dollars from the department's COVID-19 federal relief fund to be used for his border operations, its longest serving director quit on the day of the announcement in April.

With low pay, the department is unable to retain employees. By June fewer than half of the positions in the department were filled, the Tribune said.

New staff are often thrown into the job without adequate training just to fill the gaps, officials reported at an advisory council meeting.

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