This summer, children in Texas' youth prison systems faced poor conditions such as being trapped in their cells, and forced to urinate in water bottles and defecate on the floor. Children in at least two of five state facilities reported regularly lacking access to toilets as the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s workforce shrunk below dangerous levels. In May and June, more than a dozen detained youths at the Giddings State School said officers often didn’t let them out of their cells to use the bathroom between 4:30 p.m. and 8 a.m. during the week due to short staffing, reports the Texas Tribune. On weekends, without teachers and case managers to fill in for vacant officer positions, youths were sometimes kept in their cells 22 hours a day. The children had no choice but to use water bottles, milk cartons, lunch trays or pieces of paper as makeshift toilets, they told the ombudsman for the Texas Juvenile Justice System during monthly inspections. It’s inhumane, a youth told inspectors. “Even animals are let out,” another said.
Calls by juvenile justice advocates and dozens of lawmakers for immediate action to address the crisis have largely gone unanswered by Gov. Greg Abbott. Last month, the governor’s office said the safety of staff and youth in state lockups was a top priority for him, touted the agency’s recent pay raise — funded largely by agency officials funneling cash from the abundance of vacant officer positions — and promised to support further salary boosts during next year’s legislative session. Claims of mistreating youth are under federal investigation. As of July, less than half of the prisons’ officer positions were actively filled, with new hires leaving before six months. Without enough staff to supervise the youth, children locked in their cells have increasingly engaged in self-harm and suicidal behaviors. At Giddings, the agency responded in June by creating a team of five employees to move from building to building on nights and weekends for the purpose of having two staffers in a dorm to allow bathroom access or to assist with other needs. In late June, the agency also began shifting detainees to better match staffing availability. Days later, the agency announced it would be taking the drastic step of halting the intake of sentenced children at its facilities, putting further strain on county juvenile detention centers. Shortly afterward, the agency again began accepting a few children into its facilities on a limited basis.