The U.S. Department of Justice recently launched an investigation into reports of abuses in the Texas juvenile detention system. Allegations include physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents as well as excessive use of chemical restraints and isolation in five youth prisons operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Texas A&M University-San Antonio history professor Bill Bush says none of these allegations surprise him based on his own research into the system. Bush is author of “Who Gets a Childhood?: Race and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-Century Texas.” In the book, he argues Texas juvenile institutions have proven immune to reform because abuse is embedded in their structure.
Listen to the interview with Bush in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: This investigation comes after a similar scandal 15 years back? And yet nothing, or not enough was done in the wake of that scandal, is that right?
Bill Bush: Actually, quite a bit was done, but it really wasn’t enough. The Texas Youth Commission, which was the agency overseeing those youth prisons, was abolished and combined. I should say, it was sunsetted, and combined with the Juvenile Probation Commission into what is now the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, and several of the youth prisons were closed down at that time or in the years after that. And the population, the inmate population, shrank dramatically.
But as you say, that wasn’t enough. Why not?
Bush: Well, it wasn’t enough because the facilities themselves are, I think, beyond rehabilitation. I think that even with a smaller population, you’re still seeing a lot of the same problems that have plagued these facilities for 130 years.
They used to be called reform schools, training schools, back then?
Bush: Yeah, they were originally called reform schools. And then they were sort of rebranded as training schools in the early 20th century, which was supposed to indicate that the youth were receiving schooling and some kind of therapeutic treatment.
How does that history linger in the way that Texas deals with youth in the prison system?
Bush: It lingers in a lot of ways. The reality is that whatever label you give to those facilities, in practice, in day to day, they function like prisons. The youth are locked up. The staff, often there are not enough staff. They’re not well-trained enough. The facilities themselves tend to be located in isolated rural areas, so they’re far away from the cities and metropolitan areas that the kids come from. Then the staff tend to come from those rural areas. So there’s kind of a disconnect in a lot of ways there.
You said that there’s not enough staff and that they don’t tend to be trained well enough. If you could deal with those two issues, would that take care of the concerns that a lot of folks have about the Texas juvenile detention system?
Bush: It would take care of it in part. The advice that the state has received from experts over and over again over the last century was really to close those facilities down and open smaller facilities located in those metropolitan areas. That way, you would have less congregate, mass, sort of custody settings for the youth. You would be able to take advantage of the professional classes that you find in metropolitan areas and near large universities, and you’d be able to involve the families and communities of those kids in their rehabilitation more easily.
Why has that not been done if that’s what experts have been recommending?
Bush: Mostly, it seems due to politics. In many cases you see a dynamic very similar to prison towns where the youth prison is one of the, if not the, major employer in the area. And so the elected officials to the state Legislature and sometimes to the Congress representing that district will fight very hard to keep a facility from being closed down. So, there are sort of economic reasons, there are political reasons, that they have really held that up.