The Bloated Underbelly of Mass Incarceration

You know things are changing when Will Harrell, one of the most prominent criticis of the Texas criminal justice system, is named ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission.  Back in 2000, Will was the first civil rights advocate in Texas to rally around the Friends of Justice in out Tulia fight, and he has been a close friend of our organization ever since.   This article in the Houston Chronicle is based on Mr. Harrell’s testimony before the Texas House Corrections Committee during which he recommended the closing of the TYC facility at Vernon.

My guess is that the juvenile prison where Mychal Bell is currently being sequestered is at least as bad as the facility in Vernon, Texas. 

Many of you have heard that the prison outside Jena has been shut down on two separate occassions: once, in 2000, when it was a juvenile lockup, and again post-Katrina, when it re-opened as an emergency warehouse for inmates transplanted from New Orleans.  On both occasions, allegations of racism and abuse spurred investigations.

The prison outside Jena is now being expanded by GEO Corps, the same outfit in charge of the infamous Coke County Juvenile Justice Center in West Texas that was recently closed after a rash of complaints reached the right ears.  It should be noted that what Texans now call “The TYC scandal” was sparked by the investigative reporting of Nate Blakeslee, the young man Friends of Justice alerted to the Tulia story seven years ago.

It should also be remembered that charges of graft and political corruption accompanied the construction the prison west of Tulia, Texas and the repeatedly-closed facility outside Jena, Louisiana.  The infamous Graham brothers from Houston were involved in the machinations surrounding the construction of both facilities.  One of the Grahams exposed Edwin Edwards to an investigation that eventually placed the former Louisiana governor in federal prison for ten years.  In an attempt to limit his own criminal liability for prison-related misdeeds in Texas, Patrick Graham told the feds that Edwards had received generous kick-backs in exchange for greenlighting the prison project in Jena. 

After going down the river, Graham implored authorities to let him out of the Texas Gulag because prison was “a cramped, lonesome place.”  That’s called irony.

In other words, investigate issues like juvenile justice and prison contracts in Texas and Louisiana and you find yourself knee-deep in scandal.  Fortunately for mass incarceration buffs, nobody ever pays much attention.

The new Jena prison will hold illegal aliens.  A picture in a recent issue of the Jena Times featured a dozen shovel-wielding local white business and political leaders eager to cash in on the jobs and economic activity prisons initially bring to isolated communities.  How long will it be before yet another cycle of scandal engulfs Jena’s oft-requited love affair with the criminal justice business?

TYC ombudsman urges closure of second youth prison

AUSTIN — An ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission recommended closing a North Texas youth prison because of conditions including dangerous buildings, meager programming and understaffing.
Will Harrell’s report described the Victory Field Correctional Academy in Vernon as the “the least adequate” of any he’d visited since he took the job in May.
“If I were king, I’d shut it down today,” Harrell said after testifying in front of the House Corrections Committee on Wednesday. “It’s an incredibly violent campus. … There’s just this sense of fear and intimidation.”
Harrell told committee members that the Vernon facility was the TYC prison most similar to the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center in West Texas. The agency closed that lockup this month and fired its private operator after Harrell reported terrible conditions there.
The Victory Field report was part of a daylong hearing covering reforms and continuing problems at the Youth Commission, which was placed in state conservatorship this spring after a sex abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up.
Harrell’s report said buildings at the state-run Vernon facility are “structurally suffering, dangerous and unclean, staff morale is low, youth are idle and agitated, programming is meager … and there is a serious understaffing and training issue.”
Dimitria Pope, the Youth Commission’s acting executive director, said she had not seen a copy of Harrell’s report, which was distributed to committee members before Wednesday’s meeting. But she said she wasn’t in total agreement with Harrell’s assessment of Victory Field.
“I personally have gone to Victory Field myself and had some concerns about the physical structure,” Pope said. “I’m not saying it’s an ideal place … but there’s not feces, there’s not problems with plumbing that I saw (at Coke County).”
Pope said any problems will be addressed after the facility is inspected next week.
Harrell’s report described “huge blind spots” in the security camera system, including an area that inmates said they had used for sexual acts, fights and tattooing.
Other problems were a lack of access from the facility’s phones to the TYC hot line for students to report abuse, and youth complaints of staff retaliation when they file grievances.
State Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican who represents Coke County, said the problems at Victory Field look similar to those at the facility that was recently closed.
“If those conditions exist, this facility certainly needs to be looked at and held to the same standards that they used in Coke County,” he said.
Pope said there could be more problems uncovered at the Youth Commission as officials work to overhaul the agency.
“I can’t say we’ve reached the core of all the issues,” she said.

2 thoughts on “The Bloated Underbelly of Mass Incarceration

  1. “My guess is that the juvenile prison where Mychal Bell is currently being sequestered is at least as bad as the facility in Vernon, Texas. ”

    The Justice Department has filed law suits against Lousiana to force it to improve juvenile detention facilities, including the one near Jena, Go to the Justice Department Website and type Jena into the seach bloc to access pertinent files.

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