Last year, as beatings and fights engulfed the 300-bed Texas lockup for teen offenders near Giddings, staff members were not surprised. “The blood had been coming for more than a year,” said one veteran employee told the Austin American-Statesman. “Everyone here knew the population was getting a lot tougher. We knew the programs didn’t work right. We knew the gangs were out of control, (that) the place was getting out of control. Everyone knew the clock was ticking.” Everyone, it seems, except officials at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, who said problems at lockups that surfaced publicly this year were overblown and that the new juvenile justice system created after a 2007 sex abuse scandal was beginning to blossom.
Despite years of reforms — from shifting two-thirds of the incarcerated youths into community-based programs to reducing the number of lockups from 14 to six to increasing oversight through special investigators and an ombudsman — one thing did not change: a management philosophy that stresses treatment and rehabilitation, oftentimes at the expense of security. Without exception, a dozen Giddings employees blame the spike in violence on a series of policy changes implemented under Executive Director Cherie Townsend in the past two years that removed consequences for youths’ bad behavior — preventing officials from locking them in secure cells or removing credits for completing programs required before they are released.