A mother watches helplessly as her teenage boy deteriorates in a Texas youth prison
By Lisa Armstrong, The Texas Tribune
“A mother watches helplessly as her teenage boy deteriorates in a Texas youth prison” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988, or you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.
It started with the cuts — dozens of angry slices on his forearms.
It was December 2020, and the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility had stopped visitation due to COVID-19. Keith, then 14, says he was supposed to get two FaceTime calls a week with his mother but his requests for the calls were denied. It made him angry, so he cut himself.
“I done it because even if you talk to [the staff], it’s like they don’t realize what I really want. So I had to do this just to show them,” he said.
In the following weeks, there were more cuts — deep, fresh wounds over barely healed scars. By September 2021, it had escalated. Keith started inserting objects in his urethra — bits of metal, glass and wood. He has now been hospitalized and had surgery 12 times for incidents of severe self-harm, including three times in March 2022 alone. After each hospitalization, he has returned to Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities, where the cycle repeats.
[Almost 600 Texas youths are trapped in a juvenile prison system on the brink of collapse]
Asked in mid-April why he was hurting himself, Keith’s answer was simple. He’s been in detention since he was 11. He missed his mother.
“I want to go home,” he said. “That’s all.”
Texas has essentially controlled Keith’s life for four years. He was removed from his home and placed in TJJD ostensibly to help him, “to provide a safe environment where youth in the agency’s care and custody receive individualized education, treatment,” as TJJD’s mission states.
His mother says she begged Keith’s court-appointed attorney to try to get him sent to a mental health facility instead of TJJD. She said the lawyer, who did not respond to numerous requests for comment, told her, “He will get the mental health help he needs at TJJD.”
Instead, the agency has failed Keith at every turn and provided an environment where the trauma, isolation and other issues have caused his mental health to decline and left his mother terrified that he’ll hurt himself to the point of permanent physical damage. (The Texas Tribune is not using the full names of Keith or his mother, Amnisty, because he is a juvenile.)
“My biggest fear is getting a phone call telling me my child is dead,” Amnisty said in late July, after Keith had tied several ligatures around his neck, swallowed a handful of pills and cut his arm, all in the span of a couple of days. “My phone rings and I’m terrified to answer because I’m afraid they’re going to tell me [Keith] didn’t make it this time.”
The state’s criminal juvenile justice apparatus has a long and well-documented history of neglect and abuse. In December 2017 and again in July 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Rangers to look into potential cases of abuse and illegal behavior by TJJD staff. In June 2022, two officers were arrested for slamming a handcuffed teen’s head into a brick pillar, leaving him unconscious. The U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating conditions at the juvenile prisons that TJJD calls “secure facilities,” looking into cases of abuse, excessive use of isolation and whether the state is providing adequate mental health care.
Despite the DOJ inquiry and past investigations, the issues persist. Though the system’s total population dropped from an average of 842 in 2019 to 612 as of May 2022, the number of incidents of self-harm has almost doubled. TJJD data shows that in 2019, there were 1,181 incidents of self-harm in its facilities. That number rose to 1,761 incidents in 2020 and 2,104 in 2021.
In addition to Keith’s dozens of documented cases of self-harm, TJJD records — which Aminsty shared with the Tribune — show that he has been isolated and pepper-sprayed. One investigation found that within a five-hour period in June 2019, Keith and five other youth engaged in approximately 124 sexual acts, including oral and anal sex, while there was an officer sitting at a desk around the corner, purportedly supervising them.
Keith’s mother, Amnisty, has written everyone she can think of — several TJJD staff members, including the ombudsman charged with investigating incidents, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Rep. Gary VanDeaver — to get help for her son.
In February, the ombudsman sent Amnisty an email acknowledging that Keith was able to cut himself because he wasn’t being properly monitored, but the investigation was closed with no further action taken.
It is not that TJJD is unaware of the negligence; the agency’s own investigations demonstrate that it is. So if this isn’t a question of ignorance, why hasn’t the state done more to address such high levels of self-harm and mistreatment?
“Not a dollar”
Keith grew up in Mabank, a town of about 4,000 in East Texas. Amnisty says that she and her now ex-husband were addicted to meth for much of Keith’s early childhood, and when Keith was 6, child protective services took him and his two brothers and placed them with a paternal aunt.
Amnisty remained close with her sons. One day toward the end of 2017, in an attempt to escape the meth in Mabank and get sober, Amnisty took Keith, then 11, and his 13-year-old brother and tried to hitchhike the 100 miles north to Bogata, where she had family. They walked along the highway for about six and a half hours.
“Not a dollar in my pocket, not a phone to call nobody, not a dollar to feed my kids,” she said. “They were so mad. They were hot, they were tired and they were thirsty. And we fought and we argued and screamed for hours and hours.”
Eventually, the aunt who’d had custody found them and drove them the rest of the way, where they went from Amnisty’s uncle’s house in Bogata to a shelter in Paris and finally an extended stay motel, where Amnisty worked as a housekeeper.
Amnisty started attending AA meetings and going to church. While there were initially moments of relapse, she says she has been sober now for three years.
But Paris was different. Amnisty remembers hearing gunshots almost every night. And she says Keith befriended boys who were shoplifting and vandalizing property. He started running away from home and skipping school. He also started taking drugs — marijuana and Oxycontin.
Amnisty called the police when Keith ran away, she estimates about 10 times in total. It’s a decision she now regrets. When Keith was eventually arrested for more serious transgressions, prosecutors used the police reports to build a case against him.
According to TJJD records, in June 2018, Keith was given three years probation for vandalizing a van and other property. He could have served that sentence at home but was sent to a TJJD facility when he violated his probation by kicking a school safety officer.
Keith spent 15 months at the Ron Jackson and Giddings facilities. When he returned home, Amnisty said he was withdrawn. He spent hours alone in his room and had to sleep with the light on.
He was home for only about two months before he was caught in a stolen car driven by a friend. He was sent back to TJJD for spitting on a police officer who tried to restrain him.
Since then, TJJD records show, his mental health has continued to decline. Even before he started cutting himself, he’d had several instances of what TJJD labelled “suicidal behavior.” Between March 2020 and November 2021, he engaged in 82 acts of suicidal behavior, including tying ligatures around his neck and drinking a solution used for stripping wax from floors.
Keith’s charges — hitting an officer and spitting on another — were relatively minor, and if he’d lived in a county with resources to better meet his mental health and other needs he might have avoided entering into state custody, said Brett Merfish, director of youth justice at the advocacy organization Texas Appleseed.
“I think that if he had been in an urban county that he might not have landed where he is,” Merfish said. “It comes down to what resources are available, what community services, what mental health services.”
Merfish points to Harris County as an example. In 2018, Harris County sent about 149 of the 1,911 post-adjudicated youth — about 8% — to TJJD and in 2021 sent only 33 youth, about 4%, and is instead finding ways for youth to remain in the community and receive rehabilitative services.
“They had a change in judicial leadership and made an intentional effort to say, ‘Who are we sending to TJJD? Do all of those kids need to be there?’” Merfish said. “And then they’re working toward a community reinvestment model to take money and put it into more community services and intervention.”
Merfish was one of the attorneys who filed the complaint, along with Disability Rights Texas, that led to the ongoing DOJ investigation.
The complaint documented excessive use of pepper spray by guards, isolation and lack of adequate mental health care. But the underlying issue is staffing.
A struggling system
TJJD had a 71% turnover rate in the 2021 fiscal year, and as of June 14 had less than 50% of its full-time correctional officers available to work. The high number of vacancies and staff turnover make it impossible to provide a safe environment for youth.
Based on current staffing levels, the juvenile prison called the Giddings State School — which includes TJJD’s mental health program and Crisis Stabilization Unit — is about 150% over capacity, according to TJJD records. The Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg is 200% over capacity. Sixty percent of the mental health positions at Evins are filled, which means they have the capacity to meet the needs of only about 44 children as opposed to the 94 currently there.
The staffing shortage has had a domino effect. Because TJJD cannot meet the legally mandated 1:8 adult to youth ratio to provide safe supervision, children have been locked in their rooms from 4:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. the following day. Some spend as long as 22 hours a day isolated in their rooms. Brittany Norman, an attorney at Disability Rights Texas, says youth at Giddings have been forced to go to the bathroom in bags and cups because they haven’t had access to toilets between those hours.
The only way for the children to get out of their rooms is to create a crisis.
“Kids are self-harming to get out of their room,” said TJJD’s interim executive director Shandra Carter at the agency’s June board meeting. “They are self-harming because the mobile teams may take an hour to get there and they have to go to the bathroom. They are self-harming because they get to go to the clinic and the infirmary to have contact.”
TJJD psychologist Evan Norton said at the same meeting that mental health professionals completed over 1,000 suicide risk assessments in December 2021 alone and that the agency does not have the mental health staff to meet the children’s needs. In 2017, nine youth were admitted to TJJD who needed the highest level of mental health intervention; in 2021 there were over 35.
At Giddings alone there are currently 50 children on the waitlist for this highest-tier intervention.
“At this point, our pool of youth waiting for treatment has become too large for us to maintain,” Norton said. “I frequently conceptualize our treatment waitlist like a swimming pool and we are trying to empty by using a cup.”
Cycles of self-harm
Keith has been isolated for much of his incarceration for assaulting staff and in Giddings’ mental health unit to protect him from harming himself. He has several diagnosed mental illnesses, and while he has been given medications — including Aripiprazole, an antipsychotic medicine used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Adderall and Zoloft — he said he has not received regular therapy.
He’s experienced a lot of trauma. In addition to his parents’ meth addiction, their divorce and his father’s incarceration, Keith was sexually abused by the male partner of a babysitter when he was 4. He has filed dozens of grievances alleging physical and other abuse at TJJD facilities.
Keith says he’s sometimes been isolated for up to 14 days at a time, allowed out only to take a shower, and that it’s typically the loneliness that leads him to hurt himself: “Like when I’m sitting by myself, like when I’m alone. That’s how I get mad. Because I’m not used to being alone,” he said.
In the four years he has been incarcerated, Keith says he has not attended school but instead has been given work packets to complete on his own. His mother says that academically he is several grades behind where he would otherwise be.
A TJJD spokesperson could not comment on Keith specifically but said that over the past two years there have been disruptions in schooling due to COVID outbreaks and the staffing shortage: “Youth may have received study packets from their teachers during critical staff shortages, in which youth would have to stay in their rooms because training staffing was insufficient to provide safe supervision at legally mandated levels.”
At the end of March, following three hospitalizations for inserting objects in his urethra, Keith was transferred from Giddings to a psychiatric hospital. Amnisty was thrilled to buy him some “free world clothes.” He started therapy and was able to attend school with three other teens. He went two months without hurting himself, save for one incident when he first arrived.
In Keith’s FaceTime videos with Amnisty, he appeared happier — his bearded face fuller, a little less pale. On past calls, Amnisty had used their time together to document his wounds. Now, there were none to show.
The fact that Keith was thriving in the hospital illustrates one of the main points made by Merfish, who argues that staffing issues aside, TJJD juvenile prisons are not the best places to rehabilitate children.
At TJJD, Keith “hasn’t had access to educational services. He hasn’t had consistent access to mental health treatment. He hasn’t had those things that are sort of fundamental to his rehabilitation,” Merfish said.
Merfish advocates closing TJJD facilities and finding ways for youth to serve their sentences closer to their homes.
“Our primary goal is rehabilitation and, of course, secondary to that is safety, right?” Merfish said. “We want safety for youth themselves and the community. Sometimes that might mean being in a secure facility, but it doesn’t have to look like a large prison located over 250 miles from your family, from your community.”
A report by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center showed that in Texas, youth who had served their sentences in state-run juvenile prisons were 21% more likely than youth supervised at the county level to be rearrested within one year.
Texas’ Sunset Advisory Committee, which is currently auditing TJJD facilities, has made several recommendations, including increasing incentives to divert youth to county rather than TJJD facilities.
On June 16, Amnisty spoke at TJJD’s Safety and Security meeting at the Texas Capitol. Her voice quivering as she held back tears, she held up about 30 photographs she’d taken during her FaceTime calls with Keith over the past two years, showing the scars on his arms, wounds that had become infected.
“I’m not here to complain. I’m not here to nag about the justice system,” she told the committee members. “I’m here to beg and plead to help my child. He’s in a hospital and he’s doing very well. He’s not self-harming. And they’re fixing to send him back to TJJD where he’s not safe at all.”
While Keith recognized that he was doing better at the hospital, in mid-June he called Amnisty and said he wanted to return to Giddings. He said he’d been told that his time at the hospital would not count as time served and he couldn’t complete the anger management program needed to meet the requirements for parole. (A TJJD spokesperson said that time in the hospital would still count toward Keith’s minimum length of stay.)
Amnisty went through a list of pros and cons with him.
“At the hospital, you’re more stable and you are more positive and encouraging to yourself,” she told Keith. “Now, tell me the good things about TJJD.”
“The phone calls,” he said. At TJJD he was able to call whoever he wanted, pretty much whenever he wanted, whereas at the hospital he had only scheduled calls with his mother.
“That’s it? Now tell me about the bad, the unhealthy things you’ve experienced.”
“Everything else,” he said.
Against Amnisty’s wishes, Keith returned to Giddings in late June. She said that even though he is a minor, TJJD has allowed Keith to make consequential decisions such as these and she has had no say.
While TJJD has announced 15% pay increases for direct care staff in an effort to curb resignations and boost recruitment, conditions at TJJD are still critical. On July 7, the agency announced that it could not accept any new youth due to the staffing shortage.
“The current risk is that the ongoing secure facility staffing issue will lead to an inability to even provide basic supervision for youth locked in their rooms,” Carter said in a letter to juvenile probation leaders. “This could cause a significantly impaired ability to intervene in the increasing suicidal behaviors already occurring by youth struggling with the isolative impact of operational room confinement.”
In the few weeks Keith has been back at Giddings, he has tied a ligature around his neck when he said he was locked in his room and needed to use the bathroom and he has also cut his arms and inserted metal in his urethra. Amnisty is relying on prayer to keep him safe. Aside from the anguish that comes from each cut, each hospitalization, there’s the financial cost. Amnisty has been billed for each of Keith’s hospitalizations, and says she owes thousands of dollars that she can’t afford to pay.
Keith has racked up additional charges for assaulting TJJD staff, and Amnisty says staff at Giddings say that if he continues this behavior after he turns 16, he will likely be transferred to an adult facility. Amnisty says that due to his PTSD and other mental illnesses, Keith reacts violently when staff try to restrain him, and being in TJJD facilities since he was so young has impaired his ability to regulate his emotions and actions.
“The system has failed my son. They’ve neglected him, they’ve abused him, there’s no justice at all,” she said. “He needs to come home before that cruel, cold, darkest place he is in kills him.”
Lisa Armstrong, is an Oakland, California-based freelance journalist and an associate dean at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. If you have feedback related to this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Researcher Lola Proctor contributed to this report.
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
When you join us at The Texas Tribune Festival Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, you’ll hear from changemakers who are driving innovation, lawmakers who are taking charge with new policies, industry leaders who are pushing Texas forward and so many others. See the growing speaker list and buy tickets.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/03/texas-juvenile-prison-mother-son/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.