Texas’ youth prisons draw fire from state lawmakers

With an alarming report that appears to be based on faulty databases and a general confusion over what should be basic information, several state lawmakers said Wednesday they are still frustrated by the Texas youth prison system and questioned whether it will ever regain the public trust.

“I don’t have confidence in anything the agency is doing,” said Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who co-chairs the joint Senate and House committee charged with oversight of the Texas Youth Commission.

Panel members were concerned by a report issued last week by TYC’s ombudsman Will Harrell that said scores of allegations of mistreatment of youth may have been closed without proper investigation over the past 14 months.

On Wednesday, TYC officials said the report was based on an old and incomplete database. An internal follow-up investigation did not find the same problem, although officials said they are still reviewing the cases.

Whitmire, who said last week he was shocked by the initial report and lashed out at TYC officials, turned his criticism toward Harrell on Wednesday.

“I think we’re finding out it’s a high-tech typo. This is way too serious to be dealing with it so casually,” Whitmire said of Harrell’s report.

Lawmakers have been closely watching the TYC since allegations of sexual abuse of inmates and a cover-up by agency officials erupted in early 2007.

Harrell, a former head of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was hired that year as the TYC ombudsman, who serves as an agency watchdog office and youth advocate.

Harrell’s report indicated scores of abuse cases were either not investigated properly by the agency or turned over to law enforcement, while others were left in limbo.

Agency officials blamed the finding on a faulty database that simply isn’t up to date and not set up to have all the relevant information. A followup of cases showed that most of the information showing how a case was disposed was available in paper files, but not in the computer system.

The agency identified 564 cases to review. Of about 300 reviewed so far, only about 19 warrant further investigation and only one probably should have gone to law enforcement that has not. The inmate in that case is no longer in the TYC, said Bruce Toney, the agency’s inspector general.

TYC Conservator Richard Nedelkoff said a new, more complete database is supposed to be ready by December.

Nedelkoff said the existing database doesn’t meet the agency’s needs and isn’t adequate. “We rely too much on paper,” Nedelkoff said.

“In a perfect world, you should be able to click” on a computer screen for the information, Nedelkoff said.

Whitmire and other lawmakers criticized Harrell for releasing the report when they said it was clear the database was likely to provide unreliable information.

“Don’t jump to conclusions. We shouldn’t alarm people,” Whitmire said.

Harrell said he used the best information he had and believes his office has a legal responsibility to report problems it finds.

“With the history (of TYC), we weren’t prepared to roll the dice,” Harrell said.

After the meeting, Harrell said he believed the agency review will ultimately find many cases that were not correctly handled. He said his office has been telling the agency and lawmakers that it was finding problems as far back as February.

“If this is nothing more than a high-tech typo, we’ll be the first to celebrate, but I don’t think that will be the case. The data that was presented to us demonstrated a serious problem,” Harrell said.

The panel suggested an outside review by the state auditor may be needed.

There also seemed to be confusion over the number of inmate-filed grievances under review. Harrell’s office said there is a backlog of more than 1,000 grievances that are considered overdue, while a TYC official said the number was closer to 550.

Then lawmakers learned that’s because there’s two separate databases that handle those cases.

“I need an aspirin,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

All the confusion led Whitmire to complain that the agency seems as broken as it was two years ago when lawmakers were scrambling to fix it.

“Anybody strolling in here and listening to this would think they ought to replace all of us,” Whitmire said. “It’s what I don’t know that still scares me the worst. That’s what I said two years ago.”




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