By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
The profile of youth who come to TJJD is changing. The agency is serving more highly violent offenders – those referred for homicides, attempted homicides, and armed robbery -- as well as a much higher percentage of youth with serious mental health needs.
Still, some youths committed to TJJD are assessed to be low-risk or moderately low-risk to reoffend. These young people have various backgrounds and reasons for coming to a secure state facility. Some, like D.B., an 18-year-old who’s completing the program this month, never committed violent offenses, but had become a repeat offender. D.B. had failed out of a probation program in his home county and spent more of his middle teen years in local juvenile detention than at home. A judge sent him to TJJD in 2022 for D.B.’s second car theft, and a mounting record of other offenses, but none involved violence against another person.
A similarly positioned youth was nearly out of the system, having been paroled from TJJD. But he cut off his ankle monitor and went on the run. He re-thought that decision and turned himself in a few months later. The judge sent him back to TJJD to complete his term.
These youth, based on their background and risks to offend, qualify under a provision of the Texas Administrative Code -- TAC 385.45 – to be placed in a less restrictive environment.
Such youth have always been tracked at TJJD, but now they’ve got their own dorms and a highly structured new program, aptly dubbed Achieve, that aims to help them move through their requirements quickly, step down to a hallway house and head home.
The two residential halls serving this new program can house up to 32 youth. They opened at the Ron Jackson campus, in Brownwood, over the spring and summer.
“These kids qualify to be out at less restrictive facilities. But they made poor decisions that landed them in high restriction. So, we’re trying to help them remove those barriers that might keep them in longer than necessary,” said Alan Michel, Sr. Director for Operations.
The first step is to identify these “385.45” youth when they first arrive at Orientation and Assessment (O&A) at the Ron Jackson campus. There a youth’s treatment team assesses their eligibility for the program, reviews their background, and confirms their willingness to participate. As they’re evaluated for the program, through interviews with case managers and treatment professionals, O&A staff monitor them to assure they will be a good fit. One important benchmark is that the youth refrain from any aggressive behavior for 30 consecutive days while at O&A. Another is that the youth must express sincere desire to make and commit to behavioral changes.
Diversion to Achieve
Once all factors are considered and all requirements met, a youth can be accepted into the Achieve program, which diverts them from being placed into a general population setting. They will serve their time with other lower risk Achieve youth in a milieu designed for them.
“The reason for developing this program is that the agency recognizes that if you put a low-risk youth with high-risk youth, that low-risk youth will eventually become a high-risk youth,” said Ron Jackson Assistant Superintendent Robert Flores. “And so, the agency felt there was a need to create a program to help those low-risk youth stay low-risk youth and not get so lost into the system.”
“What we can see sometimes is that you have a young man who is low risk and he’s targeted by someone who has been through the system a long time. What can then happen is you have a kid who came in on a sentence of nine months but because he keeps getting Level II hearings, they have multiple assaults or fights in the facilities or they’re assaulting staff. They fall deeper into our system when they never should have in the first place.”
One Achieve youth, V.O., 17, recalled being plucked from the transport bus that would have taken him to a general population dorm at a different secure facility. He had been under assessment for the program and was assigned to Achieve.
Now headed home to East Texas after a successful placement in Achieve followed by a few weeks at Ayres Halfway House, V.O. believes that turn of events that day on the bus was fortuitous. In the Achieve dorm, he felt safe and out of the reach of any youth who might try to “get you in trouble.”
“It made my mood better,” he said, though he noted that nearly all of his cohort did have “issues” and were enrolled in anger management and substance use treatment plans. They had some work to do. Assignment to Achieve was just the beginning.
While the youths identified for this program have been assessed as “low risk” or “low-to-moderate risk” to re-offend, they’ve also been referred for criminal offenses. To move successfully through TJJD, they are expected to meet strict behavior goals, stay motivated in school, and actively engaged in their prescribed therapies.
The Achieve plan offers a great reward – a quicker stay at TJJD of four to six, maybe eight months, encompassing stepdown to a halfway house -- but it comes with high expectations.
The youth must prove they’re serious, demonstrate “zero” aggressive behavior and keep moving forward in their program, Michel said. They must commit to making improvements.
The Team Leader who pulled V.O. in for slot at Achieve had looked him in the eye as he sat on the transport bus and asked: “If I keep you here are you going to be good?”
How it works: Safety, kudos and calm
Asst. Supt. Flores, Cowboy hat shading him from the sun, swung open the door to the Achieve dorm on a sunny day in early September, releasing a gush of cool air that soothed after the heat of the 100-degree walk across campus.
The dayroom looked like many do in dorms at TJJD secure facilities, with its modular furniture and windowed offices that allow JCOs to monitor the room. There was a blue phone tucked in the corner and an array of notices tacked onto the painted cinder block walls. One simple typed page – “A Quick Peek at What’s Happening at our Halfway Houses” gave various updates and included a tally of Achieve youth who’d moved on to halfway houses. It was one of many explicit messages aimed at enticing the youth to consider their future and stick with the program.
“We’re giving them something to look forward to, to transitioning to a halfway house, and then home,” said Juanita Lopez, the team leader for the dorm.
The focus on the future and forward-looking positive messages are almost a musical patter. Down a hallway to the youths’ sleeping quarters, the doors to the rooms are covered with “attaboys” and affirmations.
One door, pretty typical, was plastered with “Woohoos!” and “Congratulations” certificates for sticking with timely morning and hygiene routines. On another door, a certificate lauded a youth for completing ART (Aggression Replacement Training).
“When they were on O&A, some of them had anger issues or lacked coping skills,” said Lopez, who’s worked as a Juvenile Correctional Office for 13 years. “Now that they’ve transferred to us, they’re working on it. They’re learning coping skills, how to handle their feelings and talk about it and not shutdown.”
“They are setting goals for the future.”
We’d caught up with Lopez at the campus gymnasium where the Achieve youths -- a collection of gangly, stocky, graceful, awkward, mop-haired adolescents - were lobbing basketballs at the net on a half court during their recreation period. It was a competitive but friendly game. Across the way, JCOs were mediating a dispute among another group of youth, though no voices were raised.
Like V.O., Lopez says that providing a feeling of safety is an overarching goal of Achieve. Once they have that, the youth become more settled, more receptive to guidance from staff and significantly more motivated.
"We had one youth who received his GED (while in the Achieve program) and his mom was impressed. She told me he had never looked to the future. Now he's considering college or the Marines," Lopez said.
Of course, all youth need that “felt safety." It may just be a tad easier to attain within the boundaries and eligibilities set for Achieve. And it's clearly part of the secret sauce.
Staff work hard, Lopez and Flores said, to help the young men in Achieve build camaraderie, encouraging them to trust their dorm mates and staff and showing them that trust is reciprocated and deserved. Grouping Achieve youth together ignites this process, but the JCOs and treatment teams must stay vigilant to cultivate and maintain the necessary positive environment.
“We shut down any bullying. And they know they cannot earn their stages that way,” Lopez says, speaking with the quiet authoritativeness of a parent discussing her own kids.
Youth at TJJD must move through four stages to advance toward discharge. Once they've attained Stage Four, they can qualify to move to a halfway house and for certain privileges, such as off-campus work programs.
To move through their stages youth must follow the rules, make amends when they don’t, stay up to speed in school and engage fully in their prescribed treatment programs. At Ron Jackson, the treatment team -- case managers and mental health professionals -- works closely with the Achieve dorm and tightly tailors the youth’s treatment programs to their risk factors, said Autumn Lord, clinical director for forensic mental health treatment services.
“We are being highly intentional with the youth by telling them about the programs and services they can receive,” Lord said. “The kids become more goal oriented . . . and more optimistic about their future.”
“We’ve seen a lot of success with the program,” she said. “We’ve had youth on O&A and they’re “385.45 eligible” to participate in the Achieve program but they’re mixed with higher risk kids. We start to see some higher risk behaviors. But when we move them to the Achieve dorm they’re better behaved and more engaged in treatment.”
Youth report what works for them: Building trust, making friends, a calm setting
For youth D.E., 18, building trust with others was the key to his full involvement and successful stay at Achieve. He transferred to Tamayo Halfway House, in Harlingen, and was on the cusp of going home in late September.
An affable youth who says he struggles with bouts of depression and bursts of anger, D.E. became friends with everyone in his Achieve dorm.
“That’s something I didn’t expect,” he said, because when he first arrived at TJJD he was sent to a general population environment and “I got in with some kids who didn’t care about anything.”
The kids in Achieve were different, more supportive, he said. “They wanted to make friends.”
“It was kind of fun. They kept us busy. We had tournaments. We played video games, basketball, and football,” he said.
The activities helped the youths build team spirit and that set everyone up for productive exchanges in group sessions where they learned to cope with their feelings of anger, he said.
“They would tell us to open up about it. It was hard for some of us to open up, but because we trusted the other kids there, we seen that we could open up and they (the staff) could help us.”
“We felt we could trust them,” he said.
D.E., who has been committed to TJJD twice for breaking and entering, viewed the staff at his Achieve dorm as highly competent, attentive and reasonably relaxed.
“It felt like they knew what their job was, and they didn’t have to worry about kids wanting to fight all the time and do (hurt) them and not care what the consequences was.”
That calmer environment enabled him to learn better emotional control and specific coping skills, like doing pushups or running, that he now uses to dissipate angry feelings. He also set goals. He wants to go to welding school after getting his high school diploma and walking across the stage, “finally doing something nobody in my family got to do.”
V.O.’s recollections mirror D.E.’s. He was grateful for the calmer setting and remembers that staff kept the youth busy all day. There were regular rewards for small wins. A quiet day with no disturbances might bring a treat of Airheads or M&Ms. A full week of good behavior at school by the entire cohort might be capped by an event with popcorn and games on the weekend.
“When I got there, I had a lot of anger,” V.O. said. But over the course of his anger management and substance abuse treatments, he adopted ways to cope, such as walking away from an aggravating situation, picturing calming imagery, or going to his room to read.
He likes adventure books, like “The Maze Runner” series. “It helps me forget I was mad,” he said. “I’m calmer too. I’m chillin’.”
V.O. also stacked up accomplishments during this period. “When I got there, I only had like 10 credits in school, and now I have like 16 or 17. And I got my GED too, that’s something I never thought I would have,” he said.
As he transitions home, he plans to continue practicing his coping skills and get a job to earn money to support his 1-year-old son. He’d like to be a house painter, like his older brother.
“It’s a good program. You get through your treatment quick,” V.O. said. “I thank Ms. Lopez for helping me get here.”
Tell her I said I made it through, I’m going to go home.”
Photos: Top: Achieve Dorm day room and poster; Middle: Notices about Halfway Houses and certificates and rewards on a room door; Achieve youth playing basketball; Bottom: Juanita Lopez talks with Asst. Supt. Robert Flores.