AUSTIN (Nexstar) — At juvenile detention centers in Texas, youth inmates are forced to live in conditions advocates are calling “appalling.” The Texas Tribune reported statewide staffing shortages mean children and teenagers are forced to stay in the cells for up to 23 hours a day, without water or bathroom breaks.
The employee turnover at these facilities is extremely high — around 70%. Tiffany Jones, a former youth development coach at Giddings State School, said many Texas Juvenile Justice Department employees were mistreated, often working 12 to 16-hour shifts without any restroom breaks.
“There was one time I had started my menstrual cycle. And I kept asking for a restroom break, and nobody came,” Jones said. “So I was in bloody clothes for, I want to say, eight to 10 hours.”
Jones left her position after she said she was injured trying to break up a fight between two teenaged inmates.
When there is a staff shortage, there are fewer employees available to keep watch over the juveniles housed at these facilities.
Barbara Kessler, a spokesperson for TJJD, said the department put a 15% pay raise in place July 1 for all direct care staff as one way to help with staffing issues.
“The agency hopes this more competitive pay scale will attract new recruits and help retain current staff, though,” Kessler said in an email to Nexstar.
“Many of these rooms do not have restrooms or running water in them. So the kids are given bottles to urinate in. This is all documented. These things are not disputed by the agency,” said Midland chief juvenile probation officer Forest Hanna.
Kessler said the department “is aware of these unfortunate incidents that occurred during times when staff was severely limited and could not safely allow youth outside of their rooms.” She also said the agency is deploying teams of employees “that rotate through short-staffed dorms to provide temporary assistance, enabling youth to leave their rooms for basic needs.”
She said the department is also shifting youth groups around facilities to ease the staffing shortage issues.
Still, advocates fear the conditions may further exacerbate the issues children face, both in the system and once they are released. Jennifer Toon, a mental health peer policy fellow for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said for those in the system with intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health issues, being locked in their cells for such long hours will affect their treatment.
“This is going to set them on a journey of self-harm and self-destruction,” Toon said. “I don’t know where in society they think that they can treat children worse than caged animals and expect them to trust people, get out and succeed without the support.”
The Texas Tribune reported self-harming incidents and suicide rates in Texas detention centers have increased substantially. Many inmates are harming themselves or attempting suicide as a cry for help to get out of their cell, the Texas Tribune reported.
According to Hanna, the youth who come to TJJD facilities already suffer from mental health issues and are there for rehabilitation.
“Because of the low staffing numbers, most of the kids over the last several months of the year have had little, if any therapy or programming,” Hanna said. “There’s a contagion effect if we have one kid that is unfortunately successful in committing a suicide. And I’m afraid we’re going to have that contagion effect.”
Both Hanna and Toon noted the current system is not helping kids once they have been released.
“We’ve seen a couple of kids that have come back to our community that were definitely in worse shape than when they went,” Hanna said.
Those looking to improve the system will be able to share their ideas for reform with lawmakers at the House Juvenile Justice Committee next Tuesday.
The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.