EDINBURG, Texas (AP) — Staff and youth have reported an ongoing “gang war” at a South Texas juvenile prison, the second recent conflict to erupt at a youth lockup run by the state’s beleaguered Juvenile Justice Department.
A report from the department’s oversight agency, the Office of the Independent Ombudsman, notes a string of January assaults at Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, including a fight involving 33 boys. Several of the youth detainees said the unrest forced them to pick a side to avoid becoming targets, while some dorms had to be shut down for safety, according to the report.
Teens were found to have been ordering assaults on officers at the juvenile center, which is the same facility where a detainee was found unresponsive last year and later died.
“It truly is probably worse than the Wild West,” said Democratic Sen. John Whitmire.
Officials for Texas’ juvenile corrections agency addressed the prison’s “gang issue” but pushed back on it being the site of a “gang war,” the Houston Chronicle reported.
“Characterizing our challenges as ‘gang wars’ misrepresents the risk and obscures the appropriate measures required to promote safety and security,” officials wrote in response to the report.
The term was also used recently to describe a similar, six-day-long conflict at a North Texas juvenile lockup, the Gainesville State School.
The oversight agency’s reports have drawn attention from lawmakers following problems within the state’s youth prison system dating back to 2017, when several employees were accused of sexual misconduct with youths in their care.
The widespread issues come more than a decade after a sexual abuse scandal led to the juvenile corrections agency changing its name and reducing the youth prison population by transferring many to county-run facilities or alternatives to incarceration. The changes mean some of the teens still locked up are among those with the highest needs.
Whitmire proposed sending older youths to the adult prison system, particularly those with a history of assault and gang involvement.
Advocates for justice reform nonprofit Texas Appleseed recommend keeping youth out of troubled lockups altogether.
“It isn’t that we’re interested in trying to go in and fix them,” said Brett Merfish, the nonprofit’s director of youth justice. “We’re interested in alternatives to them.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com