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Justice Department launches probe of Texas juvenile lockups

Federal prosecutors said they will investigate if Texas' juvenile justice system is guilty of systemic constitutional violations amid reports of corrections officers paying children to assault other youth, sharing pornography with them and physically abusing them.

HOUSTON (CN) — The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday announced a statewide investigation of Texas’ juvenile detention centers, citing numerous arrests of staff for sexually abusing incarcerated children.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department operates five prisons and several halfway houses for juvenile offenders.

“Over the last year, as recently as last week, at 11 facilities, staff members have been arrested for sexually abusing children in their care,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a virtual press conference.

Clarke said her office has also seen reports of Texas juvenile corrections officers paying children with drugs and cash to assault other children, sharing pornography with them, kicking them and choking them until they passed out.

“In an incident from last February, staff reportedly pepper sprayed a child and placed them in handcuffs, a belly chain, shackles and a spit mask and then body slammed him onto a bed,” Clarke said.

The Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department is leading the investigation with help from the acting U.S. attorneys of Texas’ four federal judicial districts, who joined Clarke in the press conference Wednesday.

Acting U.S. Attorney Nicholas Ganjie, of the Eastern District of Texas, said the focus in his jurisdiction is the Gainesville State School in Gainesville, a small town 80 miles north of Dallas.

An investigation by the Texas Rangers led to the arrest of two guards, both men, while they were working at the facility in February 2018 on misdemeanor charges they had used excessive force against children detained there.

In November 2017, two other guards at the facility were arrested after a grand jury indicted them on accusations of abuse of incarcerated youth. One of the guards reportedly struck a child in the face and the other choked a child and pushed him into a cabinet.

Southern District of Texas Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Lowery said her office is helping investigate the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, a city of around 100,000 residents in the Rio Grande Valley.

Todd Evans, 50, a longtime youth development coach at the facility, was fired and arrested in June on charges of indecency with a child and sexual contact with a person in custody.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department arrested Alvaro Alvarado, 35, another life coach at the Edinburg youth prison in August on a misdemeanor charge after security footage showed him opening a teen’s cell door and letting four other inmates in to assault him.  

Chad Meacham, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, said the target of the DOJ’s probe in his district is the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, a town of 19,000, 80 miles southeast of Abilene. The state’s only co-ed juvenile prison, it typically houses around 140 girls, according to Meacham.

In recent years the lockup has been plagued by a high turnover rate. From 2013 to 2018, 34 employees were fired, Abilene’s ABC affiliate KTXS reported in May 2018, citing documents obtained in an open-records request.

Two former staff members, a man and a woman, were arrested in August 2019 and in July 2020  for allegedly having sex with youths in custody.

Despite the numerous arrests, Meacham said he believes most Texas juvenile prison guards are good people.

“I am very confident the majority of Texas juvenile correction officers are doing their dead-level best to do right by these kids,” he said. “But if there are bad actors or systematic problems that are violating young people’s rights we are determined to root those out.”

Camille Cain, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said the agency will fully cooperate with the DOJ’s probe.

“We all share the same goals for the youth in our care: providing for their safety, their effective rehabilitation, and the best chance for them to lead productive, fulfilling lives. That has been the agency’s mission since I joined TJJD, and it remains our constant focus,” she said in a statement.

Clarke, the assistant attorney general, said the Justice Department will not make any conclusions until its investigation is finished, but if it reveals systemic constitutional violations it will give Texas written notice of them and develop remedies.

"We will seek to work cooperatively with the state to establish solutions to any problems that our investigation uncovers," she added.

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