Originally appeared in the Texas Tribune
By Jolie Mccullough
Moving the most violent and troubled youths to adult prison makes it easier to help others in juvenile facilities, some prosecutors and lawmakers say. Youth justice advocates say Texas is giving up on the children who most need help.
Desperate to restore order within the walls of the five youth prisons it operates, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has been asking judges to push more of its most troubled kids into the adult prison system.
Last year, a depleted workforce left children locked in cells up to 23 hours a day, using water bottles and lunch trays as toilets. Self-harm behavior skyrocketed among the almost 600 youths held in TJJD facilities, nearly half of whom spent some time on suicide watch. The agency has since scrambled to recruit and retain more officers.
One approach to alleviating the chaos has been to shift more youth out of the ever-in-crisis juvenile prison system into the adult one. Lawmakers and prosecutors have promoted the idea to rid TJJD of its most disruptive and violent detainees.
“The thought was how can we get these 10% of kids out of population, so the kids who are doing well and are being rehabilitated aren’t being swept in with the kids who are assaulting staff, assaulting kids,” said Jack Choate, executive director of Texas’ Special Prosecution Unit, which pursues cases of crimes committed in prison.
But youth justice advocates have condemned transferring more children from the juvenile justice department — which has a mission of rehabilitation and treatment — into the harsher, punitive adult system, run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Children shouldn’t be tossed aside because they are failing in a failing system, the advocates argue. And they claim it’s not just the most dangerous youth being transferred, but also sex-trafficking victims and children with severe mental health needs who need the most help but may react negatively to being restrained or verbally accosted by staff, a common occurrence in corrections facilities.
Multiple studies show children incarcerated in adult facilities are significantly more likely to kill themselves than those housed in juvenile facilities. Texas’ adult prison system is well known for its severe conditions, and prisoners are typically checked on much less regularly.
“It seems we really are just using TDCJ as a way to throw kids away,” said Alycia Castillo, policy director at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity. “My suggestion would be to actually treat the kids that have those most concerning behaviors. … Locking them in a cell in an adult prison to be forgotten about is not the way to do that.”