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Children are reportedly spending 23 hours lock in at Texas youth prisons

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

To Texas now, where the state's juvenile detention system is so turbulent that they have mostly stopped accepting newly sentenced teenagers. And the staffing shortage is so severe that many children reportedly spend up to 23 hours each day locked in their cells. Jolie McCullough is a reporter for The Texas Tribune who has been reporting on these issues. And just as a warning, our conversation may include some details that could be difficult to hear. Jolie, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOLIE MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: I wonder if you can start just by painting a picture for us. What is it like for kids who are living in these detention centers?

MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. So there are five youth prisons across Texas, mostly in rural areas. And what we're seeing now, because they're so understaffed, is children are locked in their cells, which is really just a mattress and maybe a bookshelf most of the time for, as they've reported, up to 23 hours a day. And what we're seeing with that is, you know, children have reported having to use water bottles as toilets. And more and more, we're seeing they're hurting themselves either out of distress or desperation because they see it as their only way to get out of isolation.

SUMMERS: Give us a sense of the scope here. How many kids are we talking about, and how did they wind up in these centers?

MCCULLOUGH: The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has shifted a lot over the years. There used to be thousands of children locked in more than five prisons. And there has been a shift during crisis after crisis to keep more children closer to home. So now there are fewer than 600 youth in these facilities. Generally, you have to have committed a felony. There's often very intense needs there that are, at this point, they're not being met.

SUMMERS: I know earlier, we talked about staffing shortages perhaps responsible for some of this. Do you have a sense of what that stems from?

MCCULLOUGH: The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has really always been - it's always been in crisis. It's been more than a decade of crisis after crisis. There's sexual abuse scandals, mistreatment allegations. They're actually under federal investigation right now from the U.S. Department of Justice. And, you know, with this, it's a very difficult job. There's always been staffing issues. Turnover has always been very high. What we saw last year was that very high turnover rate, where about 40% of detention officers are leaving. During the year, it's more than 70%.

And the agency has blamed its ongoing issues tied in with this, quote, "great resignation" throughout the country, very low pay when more people are able to work remotely, or in this case, they would be able to make the same amount working at the local gas station, local convenience store. So they're just trapped in this emergency right now where they they can't seem to keep officers in the job, and the children are hurting themselves and acting out more.

SUMMERS: As we've been talking, you have spelled out some incredibly bleak conditions for these young people. And for me, it raises the question, what should an ideal day or an ideal situation look like for someone who is in juvenile detention, as these kids are?

MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. So previously, they've been able to have school. Granted, this isn't like you go to a classroom and everyone's in the same lesson. It's generally more - each student is kind of working on a computer, or when they're not able to leave, they're working on just work packets. They get recreation time, you know, either on a track or a basketball court. And there is a lot of, you know, therapy. There's a lot of programming because very different from the adult prisons is youth prisons are - their primary goal is not punishment, it's rehabilitation because these are children.

SUMMERS: The Texas House committee that is responsible for oversight held a hearing yesterday and this issue came up. What solutions were presented?

MCCULLOUGH: There's a lot of discussion about what to do next. So after our reporting last week, some Democrats in the Texas House have called for a special session, asking the governor to call lawmakers back, to immediately address this, to immediately be able to pass laws. They're asking for things like, you know, an immediate pay raise. And they're asking for things like maybe closing some of these prisons and looking at other alternatives, maybe looking at things of reinstating some therapeutic, some violence prevention practices that have been cut given how short staffed they are. And one of the representatives who's been working in juvenile justice for a long time says maybe we need to even further limit who counties can send to these facilities. Ideally, you know, there would be none of these children who would be having to go to these facilities, and everyone could get help elsewhere.

SUMMERS: Jolie McCullough is a criminal justice reporter for The Texas Tribune. Thank you so much for your reporting.

MCCULLOUGH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.