TJJD


The Office of the Independent Ombudsman
for the Texas Youth Commission
First and Second Quarterly Reports 2008


I. Introduction

This report is the first and second quarterly report to be submitted by this office under statute and is intended for the Conservator of the Texas Youth Commission, the Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House, members of the Texas Legislature, and the Auditor for the State of Texas. This report will serve to provide an overview of the activities of this office, and will address the following areas as specified in Senate Bill 103 (SB103):

  • Describe the work of the Office of the Independent Ombudsman (OIO);
  • Discuss the results and the reviews and investigations undertaken by the OIO and describe the trends observed as the results of reviews and investigations of facilities and contract care programs that have been undertaken by this office;
  • Offer some recommendations that the ombudsman has in relation to the duties of the independent ombudsman

The OIO has submitted several reports to individual members of the Legislature and committees that have convened since the conclusion of the 80th Regular Session. The two most recent reports are attached.


II. Overview of the Work of the Office of the Independent Ombudsman

The Independent Ombudsman, Will Harrell, was appointed in May, 2007, to serve as Chief Ombudsman for the purpose of providing independent oversight and protection of the rights of the youth committed to the Texas Youth Commission.

In keeping with the requirements of SB 103, the Independent Ombudsman has traveled to all facilities, halfway houses, and most contract care programs currently used by the Texas Youth Commission. He has submitted detailed reports of his findings in the Summary of OIO Preliminary Site Visit Reports. In addition, he participated in regular meetings with the former Executive Director, Dimitria Pope and other TYC officials, and has appeared before numerous legislative bodies such at the House Corrections Committee, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and the Joint Select Committee on the Operation and Management of the Texas Youth Commission to speak about his findings and the status of the agency. He currently meets at least weekly with the conservator of the agency, Richard Nedelkoff. The Chief Ombudsman has staffed his office with three assistant ombudsmen, Tish Elliott-Wilkins, Shalonda Richardson-Grant, and Kim Bennink. See the biographical data sheet of Ombudsman staff.

The assistant ombudsmen have visited facilities, interviewed youth, evaluated programming and other services at various facilities. Currently the Chief Ombudsman and assistant ombudsmen are assisting Michael Krezmien, PhD., with a formal evaluation of educational services offered to youth committed to TYC. Dr. Krezmien is a professor from the University of Texas at Austin and a nationally recognized expert in Special Education Services and the federal laws applying to the provision of educational services. He has evaluated the educational services of juvenile justice systems in several states. The assistant ombudsmen are also in the process of reviewing several specific areas of concern including medical services offered at TYC halfway houses, suicide prevention, and the programming needs of female juvenile offenders and parolees. The Chief Ombudsman and the assistant ombudsmen have successfully addressed numerous individual cases where there was concern about the preservation of individual youth rights. The interns are assisting with conducting research in specific areas as well as assisting with setting up a pilot youth ombudsman program at two of the facilities.

The Chief Ombudsman has participated in many reform working groups spawned by SB 103 including:

  • Parents’ Bill of Rights
  • Youth Grievance System
  • Release Review Panel
  • Gender Parity (secure facility and parole and halfway houses)
  • Training (Pre-Service and on-the-job-training)
  • Parole Services
  • Advocacy Group Access
  • Volunteer Program
  • Re-entry Initiatives

The OIO has assisted with the development of the Parents’ Bill of Rights, and is in the final stages of producing a pamphlet in English and Spanish which will be given to youth at intake units to inform them of ways to reduce their risk of assaults and sexual abuse while in TYC facilities, halfway houses, and contract care programs. The OIO is also working to develop a multi-lingual letter for parents and guardians to be mailed out at intake to inform them of the services offered by the office and apprise them of the various ways to contact the office for assistance. Two Youth Ombudsmen have designed a pamphlet for this office which explains the role of the office and basic youth rights.

To ensure that best practices are being used by the office, the Chief Ombudsman conducted two site visits accompanied by the California Inspector General, a Deputy Inspector for California, and a court appointed prison monitor for the purpose of obtaining feedback about the methodology used by the OIO to gather information. The Chief Ombudsman also occasionally seeks advice from the former Ombudsmen in Maryland and Oklahoma. He has joined the United States Ombudsman Association which offers helpful materials and training.

In order to ensure efficient operations, the OIO is developing a policy and procedure manual and in it is identifying processes to assure the timely reporting of site visits, special projects, and individual case reviews. The manual will also address the frequency of OIO facility visits, records maintenance, and the role of the office as stated in SB 103. A clear policy on records retention is also being developed to ensure that all records, whether electronic or paper, are maintained in a way to ensure efficient office operations, maintain reasonable storage, and allow for timely retrieval in the event records are requested by the public or a court order. Assistant Ombudsman Kim Bennink has been designated by the Chief Ombudsman as Record Retention Officer for the state archives.

Michele Deitch Esq. has agreed to act as a professional consultant to the OIO in the areas of report writing, investigations, data collection, and policies and procedures for the office, as well as protocols pertaining to agency responsiveness to OIO findings and recommendations. She is a professor with the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and is a national expert on oversight mechanisms in correctional environments.

Though the OIO is only in its fledgling stage, the Chief Ombudsman was an invited witness to the Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission hearing on oversight in correctional systems and testified as to the efficacy of his office as a national model for independent oversight (see testimony attached).
 
The Chief Ombudsman has also participated as a speaker for several conferences since May 2007, including the 71st Annual Texas NAACP Conference, the Children’s Defense Fund Cradle to Prison Pipeline Texas Summit, the McCleskey Symposium, Annie E. Casey Foundation Annual Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiatives Conference, etc. One of the Assistant Ombudsmen has attended a conference for Black Social Workers in Texas as well as several trainings and focus groups addressing strategies for working with female offenders.

The Chief Ombudsman has also worked to create a network made up of not-for-profit advocacy and faith-based organizations that have a vested interest in securing and maintaining the rights of children, youth, and families. The OIO hosted a meeting to facilitate approximately 20 groups coming together to brainstorm, share information, and address concerns with the conservator of the TYC.

Per SB 103, the Chief Ombudsman has successfully attended and completed the TYC Pre-Service Academy training that is offered to all new TYC hires who have direct contact with youth. This was a two-week training held in Corsicana, Texas. He has only three remaining training modules to complete.


III. Accounting of Site Visits and Youth Contacts

The chief Ombudsman has visited all TYC secured facilities, most contract care programs and all TYC halfway houses. Table 1 below will show the dates of the official site visits conducted by the Chief Ombudsman and the numbers of youth contacted individually during the visits. This table does not illustrate a total of all visits made by the Chief Ombudsman for which the purpose was for follow-up to a previous site visit or a meeting with administrators and staff and does not include the visits made by the Assistant Ombudsmen to facilities, contract care programs, or halfway houses.   This table only includes data from site visits and does not include individual cases that have come to this office through a parent, advocacy group, or TYC staff.


Table 1: Chief Ombudsman Site Visits

Facility Visited

Date(s) of Visit

Number of Youth Met on Individual Basis

Al Price (TYC Secured)
07/13/07
5
Corsicana (TYC Secured)
07/28/07
5
Evins (TYC Secured)
08/02/07-08/03/07
10
Beto Halfway House
08/03/07
12
Tamayo Halfway House
08/03/07
6
Sheffield (TYC Secured)***
08/17/07
4
Victory Field (TYC Secured)
08/23/07
11
McFadden Ranch Halfway House
08/22/07
4
Gainesville (TYC Secured)
08/22/07
2
Garza County (Contract Secured)
08/20/07
6
Giddings (TYC Secured)
10/01/07
27
Evins (TYC Secured)
10/13/07-10/14/07
12
McLennan II (TYC Secured)
10/15/07
13
McLennan II (TYC Secured)
12/12/07
13
West Texas (TYC Secured)
08/19/07
33
Sheffield (TYC Secured)
12/29/07-12/30/07
17
Corsicana (TYC Secured)
01/09/08-01/10/08
51
Beto House Halfway House
08/04/07
3
Tamayo Halfway House
08/04/07
4
York Halfway House
08/04/07
3
Cottrell Halfway House
08/20/07
6
Willoughby Halfway House
08/22/07
3
Ayres Halfway House
09/11/07
3
Coke County (Contract Secured)
09/21/07
31
Crockett (TYC Secured)
07/12/07
9
Marlin (TYC Secured)**
06/28/07
28
John Shero (TYC Secured)**
07/13/07
9
Ron Jackson (TYC Secured)
09/18/07
11
Schaeffer Halfway House
08/18/07
4
Schaeffer Halfway House
12/28/07
4
Turman Halfway House
Multiple visits (including Christmas Day and Thanksgiving)
65
Giddings
12/24/07-12/25/07
15
Ron Jackson (TYC Secured)
07/14/07
27

Total Number of Youth Met

 

456

** Denotes that the facility has closed.

 

The Assistant Ombudsmen have been to the facilities noted in Table 2. Some of these were official site visits and some of these visits were in response to a riot or other event occurring on a facility.

Table 2: Facility Visits by Assistant Ombudsmen

Facility

Number of Visits

Number of Youth Met on Individual Basis

Corsicana (TYC Secured)
3
62
Gainesville
3
9
Al Price (TYC Secured)
2
44
Evins (TYC Secured)
2
27
Ron Jackson (TYC Secured)
4
39
Victory Field (TYC Secured)
1
16
Crockett (TYC Secured)
3
26
McLennan I (TYC Secured)
3
31
McLennan II (TYC Secured)
4
17
Willoughby Halfway House
1
7
Ayres Halfway House
1
4
McFadden Ranch Halfway House
2
21
Turman Halfway House
2
13
Cottrell House
1
11

Total Number of Youth Met

 

327


IV. Results of Reviews and Investigations by the OIO and Trends Observed as the Results of Site Visits

As mentioned previously, the OIO has been to all TYC secured facilities, halfway houses and most of the contract care programs used by the agency. Linked to this document is a summary of all of the site visit reports submitted by the Chief Ombudsman through February 26, 2008, and a summary of trends and findings. Some of the events and trends noted by the OIO are worth mentioning.

One notable event was that while under the leadership of Dimitria Pope, TYC made the decision to cease contracting with the GEO run Coke County Juvenile Correction Facility located in Bronte, Texas after the OIO and then TYC administrators made a visit and discovered youth living in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

Another significant event was the approval by former members of the TYC Administration to use Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) Spray before using physical force. The OIO expressed concerns about the original plan to increase the use of OC spray and sought to meet with TYC Administration about the issue several times. The decision, made over OIO objections, led to a marked increase in the use of OC spray across the state and ultimately to a lawsuit and the agency reversed its decision. Since then, the use of OC spray has diminished considerably on most facilities, with the current notable exceptions of Evins and Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility, and until recently Crockett State School.

Similarly, the OIO addressed the agency’s increased reliance on the use of isolation programs as early as October. For instance, there have been several instances in which youth were placed in isolation for long periods of time without due process hearings or when isolation was contraindicated due to a youth’s mental state. That trend has been reversed by the current leadership of the agency; however this practice still occasionally occurs, thus this office continues to actively monitor the situation.

Another set of events that have changed the dynamics of facilities has been the closure of the Marlin Orientation and Assessment Unit, San Saba facility, Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, and Sheffield Boot Camp. Those closures have put a strain on the facilities that had to absorb those youth populations. The transfer of all females to the Ron Jackson facilities (with the exception of four females currently housed at the Corsicana Crisis Stabilization Unit) has also created concerns, namely the lack of some of the programming offered at other campuses for female offenders; for example, currently female offenders with a priority one need (high need) for sex offender treatment or capital offender treatment are not able to have it because it is not offered at either Ron Jackson facility.

Despite the troubling lack of some types of programming for female juvenile offenders, much progress has been made regarding gender parity and that is attributable solely to remarkable efforts made by the local administrators. Gender appropriate educational programs have been instituted and sports and vocational opportunities have been expanded. We anticipate even more fundamental improvements made regarding gender parity as a new working group has been formed to address this concern within the agency.
 
Another positive trend that has been noted and is measurable is the reduction in incidents at Crockett State School since the change in facility administrators which occurred after a multi-day site visit by ombudsmen staff in response to serious campus disruption and property destruction by the youth assigned to the facility. That facility has fewer youth housed in the security unit and fewer violent incidents occurring since the agency replaced the Superintendent and provided additional staff support.
 
At every facility, due to a concern raised by the Chief Ombudsman after discovering youth using a highly caustic cleaning liquid at Victory Field without proper protection and ventilation, youth are no longer exposed to overly toxic cleaning products. The agency has banned the use of them in both secured and non-secured facilities. Similarly, prior to OIO intervention, some facilities piped music into the security units at high volume levels for the purpose of drowning out the noise made by unruly youth. Once it was pointed out that the practice created difficulty for all youth, especially suicidal youth, and did not allow JCO staff to hear when youth in need of assistance called out, the practice was terminated.

All secure facilities now have phones to allow them to call the hotline free of charge, with halfway houses to be outfitted by the end of the summer. During the month of December, the agency increased the number of free minutes youth had on their calling cards so that they could call home and speak to family for longer periods. We have continuing concerns with the functionality of youth phones and the hotline, but have begun to address those concerns in collaboration with the OIG and TYC administrators.

There has been an increase in the number of youth grievances filed, which may initially appear to be a negative trend, however the filing of the grievances demonstrates that many youth are now more willing to speak out about their concerns to the agency and use the processes afforded them to address complaints and issues. Due to a review of the grievance process which the OIO participated in, grievance forms now have numbers pre-printed on them, and logs are maintained at every facility documenting what forms have been handed out and to whom they were given. This practice diminishes the likelihood that grievances will ‘disappear’ or go unanswered for long periods of time because they can be tracked.   The OIO has continuing concerns with regard to unreasonable delays in grievance investigations and responses. Those concerns were documented and brought to the attention of the Conservator, and we believe the issue is being addressed.

Another trend that the OIO has observed is general willingness of the newly created separate divisions to work together cooperatively to ensure the safety and rights of the youth committed to the agency. For instance, under SB 103, the OIO is required to report any suspected criminal activity to the Inspector General’s office. This requirement ensures that these two entities work cooperatively with one another to secure the rights of youth.   The OIO has referred almost 20 cases to the OIG. We are also developing collaboration strategies with the Special Prosecutors Unit.


V. Recommendations to Improve the Operations of the OIO

There are a few recommendations that the OIO offers at this time to improve the operations of the office.   It is anticipated that additional recommendations will be forthcoming once the OIO has had the opportunity to step back and take a sustained look at the ways in which it can become more effective in assessing and securing the rights of youth confined within the TYC and those who are on parole and still under the jurisdiction of the agency.

The first recommendation to be offered is that during the next legislative session, the role and function of the office be more clearly defined in the statute, as well the relationship expected by lawmakers between the OIO and the TYC. There are vast discrepancies in interpretation among stakeholders. With only 5 FTE’s and a biennial budget of $600,000, it is very difficult to satisfy every expectation these divergent actors have of this office’s obligations. Also, the OIO was set up to be a “state agency” under SB 103. At this time the OIO relies on the TYC for purposes of financial management, space, and office equipment, which creates ambiguity as to the office’s independence from the agency.

The second recommendation is that the statute be further defined under section 64.055 (b) (Reports Section) to more clearly “define serious and flagrant.”  There have been multiple instances in which reports that have been made by this office regarding significant medical needs, programming deficiencies, and a lack of service delivery within the TYC have been ignored or severely minimized by local TYC administrators. Some might argue that conditions at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center should have triggered this provision and that the OIO failed to inform the legislature immediately as required by the statute. Further clarification of “serious and flagrant” would allow for increased accountability of not only the office of the OIO, but of the TYC, and other state agencies as well, and would mitigate opportunities for future litigation against either the OIO or the TYC under this statute.

As the Chief Ombudsman stated to the PREA Commission, “(t)o be sure, regardless of structure, any Ombudsman is only as good as the leadership of the agency he/she monitors. An Ombudsman will be successful to the extent that the agency leadership is receptive and collaborative rather than defensive and dismissive.” With the arrival of Conservator Nedelkoff, a profound culture change has begun and the relationship between this office and the agency has improved greatly. The evidence of this transformation is plentiful. We do have further to go in this regard and the OIO will keep the legislature informed as to that progress.


* Linked to this report is a Summary of OIO Preliminary Site Visit Reports. The individual reports cited in the summary are not circulated so as to protect the identity of youth. If any Legislator would like a copy for official purposes, we will provide that upon request. We also have a series of memos and video taped interviews with youth regarding certain aspects of TYC that we can provide upon request.