Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune was the first American journalist to receive my Jena narrative. This wasn’t coincidental. Howard’s reporting on the Shaquanda Cotton story (Paris, Texas) impressed me. It was another story about a school student sent to juvenile prison (Texas Youth Commission) for shoving a teacher’s aid. Most journalists wouldn’t have touched that story because, as we all know, students aren’t supposed to shove adults. But Witt had the sensitivity to know the difference between appropriate punishment and excessive punishment.
The story below suggests that the justice problem transcends race. America has decided to use prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities as a cure-all. Regardless of the problem, we want to lock-em-up. Sometimes there is no alternative to incarceration; but usually there is.
If the noose boys in Jena had been tried and convicted as hate criminals they would likely have done a stretch in a juvenile facility. If so, there is a good chance they would have experienced the kind of hell described in Witt’s article on a troubled white girl’s tragic encounter with the Texas Youth Commission.
Girl alleges sex abuse in Texas prison
White teen whose sentence led to uproar over racial disparities says guard molested her
By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent
12:16 PM CDT, October 9, 2007
When the Chicago Tribune published the story last March of Shaquanda Cotton, the 14-year-old black girl from Paris, Texas, who was imprisoned for shoving a hall monitor at her high school, the article quickly provoked a national civil rights scandal because of apparent racial disparities in the way justice was administered in the small east Texas town.
Shaquanda had no prior arrest record, and the hall monitor was not seriously injured. Yet the teenager was convicted in March 2006 of assault and sentenced by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville to prison for up to 7 years.
Just three months earlier, Superville sentenced a 14-year-old white girl, convicted of the more serious crime of arson, to probation.
The furor that erupted over the disparity in how the two girls were treated prompted Texas authorities to release Shaquanda from prison three weeks after the Tribune article appeared.
This is the story of what happened to the white girl in that saga.
It appears she has suffered a fate far worse than Shaquanda’s.
The emotionally troubled teenager, who has been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, was sent to the same youth prison in Brownwood, Texas, where Shaquanda was incarcerated, because she subsequently violated her probation twice.
While there, the teenager—whom the Tribune is not identifying—was allegedly sexually molested by a male prison guard, who then threatened her to keep her quiet, according to documents and witness statements examined by the Tribune. The girl self-mutilated her arms with a knife, carving the word “Why” into her flesh, her mother said.
Last spring, the girl attempted suicide by swallowing a handful of pills prescribed for another inmate. When a guard rushed into her cell to rescue her, authorities allege, the girl knocked the officer to the ground—an assault that tacked another 6 months onto her sentence.
Even worse, officials at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex knew of allegations that the guard was sexually abusing the girl but did not remove him from contact with female inmates until four months later.
In a letter to the girl’s parents dated Oct. 18, 2006, prison Supt. Teresa Stroud wrote that “a formal investigation has been initiated” into allegations that a prison guard “touched [the girl’s] buttocks and made comments about her anatomy.”
The girl would later tell authorities that she was too frightened to talk to investigators about the incident, and prison officials ruled that the allegation was “unconfirmed,” according to Tim Savoy, a spokesman for the Texas Youth Commission, the state’s juvenile corrections agency.
But on Feb. 24, 2007, another abuse allegation against the same guard surfaced, and he was suspended with pay the same day.
In August, a Brown County, Texas, grand jury indicted the guard, Jaime Segura, 30, on multiple felony counts including sexual assault, indecency with a child, improper sexual activity with a person in custody and official oppression.
Authorities allege that Segura molested other female inmates at the Brownwood youth prison in addition to the Paris teenager. Officials in the Texas attorney general’s office were unable to clarify Monday whether the Paris girl’s case was among those cited in the indictment.
Segura’s arrest came six months after a series of abuse incidents at other Texas Youth Commission facilities exploded into public view in a scandal that rocked the agency and forced the resignation or firing of all of its top leaders. Segura is the fifth guard at the Brownwood facility to face felony charges for allegedly molesting youths incarcerated there as part of this investigation.
Stroud declined to answer questions from the Tribune about why she did not immediately remove Segura from contact with youthful prisoners after he was first alleged to have molested the girl from Paris.
Girl describes alleged abuse
“I can’t explain or try to justify what happened back then,” Savoy, the youth commission spokesman, said. “I can tell you what we do now: If there’s an allegation, they will pull the person away from the kids, either put the guard on suspension or in an area where they will not be around the kids.”
But today, even as the youth commission moves forward with administrative reforms and the abuse scandal recedes into history, the Paris girl, who turned 16 in July, remains locked up in the Brownwood prison, where she has been for the past year. The girl’s assault on the prison guard pushed her earliest possible release date to June of next year; she was originally due to be released Dec. 15.
That assault—and the suicide attempt, the self-mutilation and the girl’s deepened depression—would never have happened if she had not been victimized by a prison guard, the girl’s mother believes.
“I understand there are processes and procedures they need to go through,” said the mother, whom the Tribune is not identifying to protect her daughter’s identity. “I understand [my daughter] needed to take responsibility for her actions and learn from them. But what is happening now is punishment, not rehabilitation. She’s being punished for something that should never have happened to her.”
Last July, during an interview conducted by an investigator from the Texas attorney general’s office, the girl related the details of what she said Segura had done to her, starting just a few days after she arrived at the Brownwood prison in October 2006 at the age of 15.
Among other things, the girl alleged that Segura watched her while she showered, offered her extra food if she would show him her breasts and threatened that she “was not going to like the outcome of it” if she revealed what the guard was doing to her.
“Mr. Segura put his hands up my shirt and grabbed both of my breasts,” the girl wrote in her witness statement. “Mr. Segura rubbed my breasts. I was scared and did not know what to say or do.”
Long before she arrived at the Brownwood youth prison, the Paris girl was emotionally troubled, her mother said. She takes medication for depression and bipolar disorder and has been in and out of alternative schools and special facilities for emotionally disturbed children.
State denies girl’s appeal
In December 2005, the girl set fire to her family’s Paris home and watched it burn to the ground without calling for help—the crime for which Superville initially sentenced her to probation. The girl violated that probation twice, first by skipping school and later by kicking a baby at the home of a relative. The baby was not injured, the girl’s mother said, but the relative filed a complaint, causing Superville to revoke the girl’s probation and send her to the Brownwood prison on an indeterminate sentence.
The abuse the girl allegedly suffered once she got to Brownwood deepened her despondency, her mother said—a point she tried to make when she appealed her daughter’s sentence extension for knocking down the guard who interrupted her suicide attempt.
Texas Youth Commission officials denied that appeal last week, without ever considering the alleged sexual molestation as a potentially mitigating circumstance.
“The information in the file I have does not state what the alleged act of abuse was, who the alleged abuser was, or when the alleged abuse took place,” Doug Wise, an attorney for the Texas Youth Commission, wrote to the girl in a letter explaining the denial of the appeal.
“I don’t want it looking like we’re trying to copycat the attention that Shaquanda got, but I think my daughter’s story needs to be told,” the mother said. “They should take into consideration that she has tried to take her life over this issue. She’s really despondent. She blames herself for what the guard did. She just cannot forgive herself. And she is not receiving any counseling for what the guard did to her.”
Late Monday, after the Tribune published this story on its Web site, state Rep. Harold Dutton, chairman of the Texas Legislature’s juvenile justice committee, said he had contacted Texas Youth Commission officials “to seek an early remedy to this young lady’s situation.”
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune