Officers' complaints center on risks posed by lack of
Guards suffer at Texas Youth
It was one more brutal beating at yet another Texas
Youth Commission prison: the victim on a concrete floor, unconscious as
the attacker kicked him in the head again and again.
But this time – Jan. 3, 2006, in San Saba – the person
absorbing the blows was not a juvenile inmate. He was J.D. Perry, a
guard. "He kicked my teeth out. He kicked my head like it was a soccer
ball," Mr. Perry said of a 16-year-old prisoner. "I didn't wake up until
they got me to the emergency room an hour later."
Mr. Perry, 53, suffered retina damage in both eyes. He
cannot read or drive now – and, since his medical termination by TYC,
has not worked. "They don't take care of their own," he said of the
state's juvenile justice agency. "They don't care."
Most of the reforms now sweeping TYC focus on curbing
abuse of inmates. But juvenile correctional officers, as TYC's guards
are known, say the agency has badly mistreated them as well.
The guards principally blame high inmate-to-staff
ratios. Often a single correctional officer will find himself alone,
unarmed, and in charge of as many as 26 inmates. "It's dangerous," said
Gary Parker, a guard at the John Shero State Juvenile Facility in San
Saba. "Anybody that thinks he's going to whip 25 kids – and a lot of
them have been fighting since their feet hit the floor – well, that's
not going to happen."
Mr. Parker, 57, said he spent 10 years as a guard in
the state's adult prison system with relatively few problems. "After
eight months at TYC," he said, "I was on Zoloft," an anti-depressant.
Seeks to reduce ratios
Jim Hurley, TYC spokesman, said administrators who
recently have taken over the agency want to reduce inmate-to-guard
ratios. "These things need to be addressed, and they need to be
addressed quickly," he said. "We understand that these JCOs [juvenile
correctional officers] are putting their health at risk in some of these
Last year, 16 percent of TYC employees filed workers
compensation claims – higher than any other state agency. Nearly all are
related to attempts to restrain, or attacks by, inmates.
A U.S. Justice Department report, released last month
in response to a 2004 riot at TYC's Evins prison, said guard shortages
also contribute to staff-on-youth and youth-on-youth violence. "Without
adequate numbers of trained staff on duty, it is not possible to respond
in a safe and timely manner when violence and other crises occur," the
report said. "Moreover ... correctional officers do not have the time to
build the relationships with youths that are necessary to identify
potential conflicts on their unit and prevent incidents from occurring."
TYC has long complained that it can't find enough
people to fill empty positions. The turnover for first-year guards
exceeds 90 percent some years. Last year, TYC had 435 vacancies out of
2,625 budgeted correctional officer positions.
Starting pay is less than $22,000 a year. "We've got
to be paying these people more than Dairy Queen to get them to come to
work for us," Mr. Hurley, the agency spokesman, said.
Most TYC prisons are in small towns or rural areas, so
the hiring pool is limited even under the best of conditions. "They have
exhausted their labor force in 10 years here by abusing their staff,"
Mr. Parker of San Saba said.
Mistrust between labor and management runs deep. Last
month, the state auditor's office released a survey of TYC employees in
which only 27 percent of the staff agreed with the statement, "I trust
Nearly all top management has been purged in reaction
to the agency's sexual abuse scandal that began unfolding in February.
And legislators are considering a bill that would lower inmate-to-guard
ratios to 12-1 and would require better training for correctional
Until now, training has been minimal – 80 hours in the
classroom – and far below that given to guards at adult prisons.
Educational requirements remain relatively low: a high school diploma or
GED. "According to one facility staff interview and survey results, some
facility staff are unable to read and write," the state auditor's report
said. "Staff are given reading and writing exams after they have
accepted employment offers."
The screening has been so lax that the agency recently
acknowledged that, in more than 100 cases, it has employed people with
felony charges or arrests. Last month, a guard at the privately operated
Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, a TYC contract prison, was
terminated after officials learned he was a registered sex offender.
TYC's evaluation procedures also have come under fire.
Employees with serious on-the-job problems have been routinely promoted.
For example, in 2003, Ray Brookins was reprimanded after an arrest on
the job for failure to pay traffic ticket fines. It was the 10th
disciplinary action in two years against Mr. Brookins, the director of
security at San Saba, including one for downloading pornographic
material onto his state computer.
Later that year, Mr. Brookins transferred to the West
Texas State School in Pyote, where, after a promotion to assistant
superintendent, he was accused of sexually molesting inmates. That
triggered the scandal that led to the purge of TYC management. Such
problematic employees are given the job of turning around the lives of
the state's most troubled and chronic juvenile offenders, many of whom
come from broken homes and have gang affiliations.
Most inmates have some sort of violence in their
pasts, said David Williams, county attorney in San Saba. "They're not in
TYC for skipping school," he said.
Maria Gray, a veteran guard at the West Texas State
School, testified at a legislative hearing last week that the job was
stressful, frightening and dangerous. "We're talking gang-related
issues, kids fighting," said Mrs. Gray, who has worked at the Pyote
prison for more than two decades. "You have to work there to know what
we're talking about." Such conditions show the need, legislators say,
for a better trained and better treated TYC workforce. "This is not a
part-time job, an entry level job to be a guard, a worker in these
facilities," said Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview. "This is the most
important job we can offer, to rehabilitate these off-the-path
Mr. Perry of San Saba went to work at TYC in 2004,
after closing his truck and trailer repair business. "I believed in what
TYC stands for," he said. "I thought, this is something I can do. I can
give back to the community. Maybe I can make a difference in somebody's
On a typical morning in 2006, Mr. Perry – bearded and
barrel-chested – assembled the young male inmates in the common area of
Dorm 7 at 5:30 a.m. "I was alone, locked in a room with 22 students," he
said. Mr. Perry told one of them, Arthur Jerold Kirven, that he faced
disciplinary action for kicking another student.
"I didn't have anybody watching my back," he said.
"The boys behind me started stomping their feet like they were coming up
on me. It dawned on me then that something was about to happen.
"These boys are predators. They know how to make their
move when you're most vulnerable," he said. "The instant I turned my
eyes, that's when it happened." A punch floored him, and the concrete
knocked him unconscious. It took four or five minutes for help to
arrive, because security staff couldn't find anyone to unlock the dorm
door. The whole time, Mr. Perry said, surveillance video shows that he
was being kicked in the head by an inmate.
Mr. Perry was medically terminated by TYC in
September. Workers' compensation and payments from the state's crime
victims' fund match his original salary.
Both retinas were detached, he said, although one has
been repaired. He likened his vision now to squinting through an ice
cube. "Everything is warped and twisted." Mr. Perry is not sure if he
will ever work again. He is somewhat hopeful, he said, that reforms to
TYC will make conditions safer for those like him. "Maybe something can
be done so that it doesn't happen again," he said.
Arthur Kirven, now 17, has been certified as an adult
to stand trial. He is charged with assault on a public servant, a
felony, said San Saba County Attorney Williams.
TYC officials say they are exploring several ways of
reducing inmate-to-staff ratios. One of them may be to release hundreds
– or perhaps thousands – of inmates whose lengths of stay in TYC have
been extended for disciplinary infractions.
"Hold your breath," said Mr. Williams. "They're coming
Doug Swanson and Emily Ramshaw
1 April 2007