Seven TYC workers fired after inmates found living in filth
Criminal investigation of closed jail to focus on state agency,
11:37 PM CDT on Wednesday, October 3, 2007
By DOUG J. SWANSON and STEVE McGONIGLE / The Dallas Morning News
Seven Texas Youth Commission employees were fired Wednesday as a
state investigation widened at a privately run West Texas juvenile
prison where inmates were found living in filth.
TYC Inspector General Bruce Toney said Wednesday he has begun a
criminal investigation of operations at the Coke County Juvenile
Justice Center near Bronte.
Mr. Toney said his inquiry could focus on TYC employees and those of
GEO Group Inc., which operates the prison.
"We are going to follow all leads wherever they take us and as high
as they may go both in TYC and the operation of that facility," Mr.
Citing "deplorable conditions," TYC this week canceled its contract
with GEO to operate the state's largest private juvenile prison. All
197 male inmates were removed on Tuesday.
Mr. Toney said he has requested assistance from the state auditor's
office and met with the head of the Travis County district attorney's
public integrity unit on Wednesday. He said he also advised the Texas
Rangers and Texas attorney general's office of his investigation.
He sent one of his investigators to the Coke County facility last
week. "Our initial response was to go out there and basically take a
preliminary look and see what we had out there. We will just look at
everything and see what transpires," Mr. Toney said.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, threatened to hold a public
hearing on GEO's operation of the TYC prison.
"Certainly that's an option if this goes any further," said Mr.
Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "If GEO
thinks they've been treated unfairly, let's have a public hearing and
look at all the photographs and videos [of the Coke County prison]
and let the public decide."
Mr. Whitmire said he was upset at efforts this week by GEO lobbyists
to convince legislators that TYC had treated the company too harshly.
"Now enters GEO with their paid lobbyists attempting to put a good
face on this," Mr. Whitmire said. "I'm saying the corporation should
back off. They've run a very poor facility that probably violates the
youths' civil rights. ... Kids were stepping in their own feces. The
sheets were such that a cat or dog wouldn't sleep on them."
GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said he would not comment on any attempts by
the company's lobbyists to sway legislators.
Mr. Paez said his company was disappointed in TYC's decision to
cancel the contract. "We believe we have provided quality services
for the Texas Youth Commission for many years," he said.
TYC officials have been unable to explain how the agency's own
quality assurance monitors, stationed just outside the prison, not
only failed to report substandard conditions but praised the
operation. In the monitors' most recent review, in February, the
prison was awarded an overall compliance score of 97.7 percent.
In that review, monitors also thanked GEO staff for their positive
work with TYC youth.
"Those who were supposed to be our quality-assurance people out at
Bronte will no longer be working for the Texas Youth Commission,"
agency spokesman Jim Hurley said. He cited an "abysmal failure on
their part to not report the deterioration of that facility."
Four of the TYC employees who were fired on Wednesday worked as
quality assurance monitors at the Coke County facility. A fifth, who
worked in TYC's district office in Fort Worth, was an author of the
February report. The two other employees also were in contract care
management, but Mr. Hurley said he would not disclose their specific
job titles or where they worked.
TYC identified none of the employees by name.
Late last month, several TYC officials – including acting executive
director Dimitria Pope – visited the prison and found poor conditions.
A report by TYC ombudsman Will Harrell detailed numerous
deficiencies. He found inmates who had been placed in solitary
confinement for five weeks. They were allowed to leave their cells
once a day, in shackles, to take a shower.
Mr. Harrell also noted that some bedsheets were dirty and that
inmates "complain regularly of discovering insects' in their food.
"Children seemed almost desperate to lodge their complaints," Mr.
Harrell wrote in his report.
Many of his findings were confirmed in a report by Susan Moynahan,
the TYC liaison for the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.
Among her discoveries at the Coke unit: Inmates in one dorm did not
have a restroom, so they were forced to defecate in plastic bags.
Mr. Paez, the GEO spokesman, said he has read the ombudsman's
findings. "I have seen the report," he said. "I really can't comment
State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, said he will meet today with GEO
representatives to discuss the Coke County prison. "I want to hear
their side of it."
TYC paid GEO $8 million a year to run the Coke County prison. GEO
said it had pre-tax earnings of about $800,000 a year on the contract.
Last year, TYC spent nearly $17 million of its $249 million budget
doing business with private contractors, including GEO. TYC is
putting together a plan to review each contract care program, Mr.
"We are working right now on plans to have a physical presence at
every contract care program that we are operating to review what is
going on and to ensure the monitoring reports that we get are
accurate," he said.
In July, The Dallas Morning News found numerous problems with TYC's
contractor-run facilities. The stories revealed that private
contractors housing juvenile inmates in Texas repeatedly have lost
contracts or closed operations in other states after investigators
uncovered mismanagement, neglect and abuse. Two states closed GEO-
operated units because of abuse allegations and inadequate care of
TYC was placed in a state conservatorship this year after a sex abuse
scandal and subsequent cover-up were exposed by The News and the Web
site of The Texas Observer.
Mr. Madden of Plano was one of the authors of legislation this year
intended to reform TYC. He noted Wednesday that he had asked TYC
officials at a hearing last month if inmates are safer now than they
were before the reforms. Officials assured him they are.
Now, Mr. Madden said, problems such as those in Coke County have
caused him to question TYC's response. "I'm not sure the answer,
'They are safer,' is actually true," he said.
Staff writer Holly Becka contributed to this report