From Texas Standard:
The US Department of Justice recently launched an investigation into reports of abuse in the Texas juvenile detention system. The allegations include physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents as well as the excessive use of chemical restraints and solitary confinement in five juvenile prisons run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Texas A&M University-San Antonio history professor Bill Bush says none of these claims come as a surprise to him based on his own research on the system. Bush is the author of “Who Gets a Childhood ?: Race and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-Century Texas.” In the book, he argues that Texas juvenile institutions have proven immune to reform because the abuses are ingrained in their structure.
Listen to the Bush interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: This investigation comes after a similar scandal 15 years ago? And yet nothing, or not enough, has been done as a result of this scandal, has it?
Bill Bush: In fact, a lot has been done, but it really wasn’t enough. The Texas Youth Commission, which was the agency overseeing these juvenile prisons, was abolished and merged. I should say it was removed and combined with the Juvenile Probation Commission in what is now the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice, and several of the juvenile prisons were closed at that time or in the years. that followed. And the population, the prison population, has shrunk considerably.
But as you say, it was not enough. Why not?
Bush: Well, that wasn’t enough because the facilities themselves are, I think, beyond rehabilitation. I think even with a smaller population you still see the same issues that have plagued these facilities for 130 years.
They were called reform schools, training schools, at the time?
Bush: Yeah, they were originally called reform schools. And then they were sort of rebranded as training schools in the early part of the 20th century, which was meant to indicate that young people were receiving schooling and some sort of therapeutic treatment.
How does this story persist in the way Texas treats young people in the prison system?
Bush: It persists in many ways. The reality is that whatever label you give to these institutions, in practice, day to day, they operate like prisons. The young people are locked up. Staff, often there is not enough staff. They are not trained well enough. The facilities themselves tend to be located in isolated rural areas, so they are far from the cities and metropolitan areas where children come from. Then the staff tend to come from those rural areas. So there is a kind of disconnect in many ways.
You said that there are not enough staff and that they tend not to be sufficiently well trained. If you could fix those two issues, would that address the concerns that a lot of people have about the Texas juvenile detention system?
Bush: He would take care of it, in part. The advice the state has received from experts time and time again over the past century was really to shut down these facilities and open up smaller facilities located in these metropolitan areas. In this way, you would have less collective, mass childcare, in a way for young people. You could take advantage of the vocational courses you find in metropolitan areas and near major universities, and you could more easily involve the families and communities of these children in their rehabilitation.
Why wasn’t it done if that’s what the experts recommend?
Bush: Mainly, it seems due to politics. In many cases, you see a dynamic very similar to that of prison towns where the juvenile prison is one of, if not the main employer in the region. Thus, elected representatives of the state legislature and sometimes Congress representing that district will fight very hard to prevent a facility from closing. So there are kind of economic reasons, there are political reasons, that they really delayed this.
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