EDINBURG – The progress made at Evins Regional Juvenile Center seems to have evaporated once the eyes of federal auditors turned away, a report released in May shows.
The special report by a professor and three graduate students at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin says that incidents of violence at Evins increased dramatically once the facility was released from U.S. Department of Justice oversight in 2011.
The spike in violence could also be explained by an increase in the inmate population while staffing remained static. The number of youths at Evins increased by about 40 percent within months of the last audit the DOJ conducted.
Nonetheless, observers want to be sure that the violence is not related to federal auditors leaving.
“It seems to me that when the Department of Justice is present and there is a drop in violence, then the Department of Justice leaves and there’s a spike in violence, the two are correlative,” state Rep. Terry Canales said.
The Edinburg Democrat introduced a bill on the first day of the Legislature’s second special session to commission another study specifically on the Evins facility. He filed the bill just days after three Evins employees — including the director of security — had been arrested on suspicion of abusing inmates and destroying the evidence. On Tuesday, he sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry asking that the bill be added to the special session’s call.
The federal Justice Department oversaw a three-year turnaround at Evins beginning in 2008 after a DOJ audit found the facility was so violent that it violated inmates’ right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. Evins scored perfectly on an audit in March 2011, the end of the three-year window.
In June 2011, the juvenile facility in North Edinburg held 98 inmates. By July 4 of that year, the population increased to 136, or nearly 40 percent, according to Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department who spoke with The Monitor via email. By August, the inmate population was in the mid-140s, without a corresponding increase in staffing.
The LBJ School report, which was prepared for the independent ombudsman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department to study rules violations at the six TJJD facilities, showed the rate of injury-causing violence per inmate at Evins nearly tripled — from about 78 such incidents per 100 prisoners in 2011 to more than 232 per 100 in 2012. That’s more than two such incidents per inmate. The 2011 number represented the lowest for the state-run, Edinburg facility in the four years reported — 2009 through 2012.
In relation to similar facilities statewide, Evins went from the middle of the pack in 2011 to the second-highest rate of injury-causing violence in 2012 — with a rate lower than only Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, the facility reserved for mentally unstable inmates.
Reports of non-injury-causing violence at Evins similarly spiked in 2012, increasing by more than 2 1/2 times, from 205 incidents per 100 prisoners in 2011 to 522 per 100 the next year. Again, the rate of such incidents at Evins in 2012 was second only to Corsicana after ranking second-lowest in 2011.
“Generally speaking, there’s a behavior-management problem,” Michele Deitch — who authored the report with three graduate students — said of the statewide system. “They need to get a handle on how to control youth behavior.”
Part of the problem, Deitch said, is a reliance on punitive measures like the “security unit” — TJJD facilities’ equivalent of solitary confinement. Time spent in the security unit takes youth away from the group educational and social programming and therapy that foster positive interactions and genuine rehabilitation, she added.
While in the security unit, inmates do receive programming and services, Hurley said.
The report found inmates statewide were referred to the security unit an average of 48 times during the life of their sentences, which average 14 months. That’s an average of one stint in solitary about every nine days for each inmate.
While acknowledging that “some of our staff members over-rely on the use of the security unit,” Hurley disputed the claim that it is the centerpiece of discipline. Referrals to the unit need to be seen in context, he said.
“A simple comparison of the number of referrals to security in a calendar year … is not necessarily a useful measure when determining whether there is an ‘over-reliance’ on this practice,” he added.
The alleged mistreatment that led to the firing of two of the three Evins employees occurred when a prisoner was being escorted to the security unit, a probable cause affidavit said.
Though the youth was cooperating with the jailor escorting him, Julian Fuentes twisted his arm and slammed him into a cell wall, the affidavit said. When the youth asked him to stop, Fuentes slammed him to the ground and fell on top of him.
Deitch said TJJD facilities need structural changes that would give youth more opportunity to demonstrate appropriate behavior.
“I am very strongly in favor of having consequences for misbehavior,” Deitch said. “But if we only look at ‘They better do what we say or else,’ then we’re only looking at half the problem.”
A 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Justice on conditions at Evins said much the same thing.
“(We) found that Evins does not provide youths with adequate programming or incentives to promote positive behavior,” the report said in a section about youth-on-youth violence.
Deitch, who holds a law degree and a master’s in psychology, said because juveniles are still developing mentally and socially, they need more redirection than adult prisoners.
She understands the instinct to center a disciplinary system on punitive measures, she said.
“But it needs to be combined with an approach that is more therapeutic in nature and designed to elicit positive behaviors.”
AT A GLANCE
Evins juvenile center report
>> The rate of injury-causing violence per inmate at Evins nearly tripled from about 78 incidents per 100 prisoners in 2011 to more than 232 per 100 in 2012 — meaning an inmate would be part of multiple incidents. The 2011 number represented the lowest for the Edinburg facility in the four years reported — 2009 through 2012.
>> Reports of non-injury-causing violence at Evins similarly spiked in 2012, increasing by more than 2 1/2 times, from 205 incidents per 100 prisoners in 2011 to 522 per 100 the next year.
Source: Special report published in May by LBJ School of Public Affairs at University of Texas at Austin