Texas’ youth prison system urgently needs money to deal with a growing crisis, in which children are at times locked in cells 23 hours a day and nearly half of detained youth have been on suicide watch, the agency’s director told lawmakers Tuesday. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department — currently under federal investigation for an alleged pattern of abuse and mistreatment — is severely understaffed, with officials saying it is nearing systemic collapse, reports the Texas Tribune. After the Tribune reported on dire conditions inside the state’s five youth prisons, the Texas House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee looked for possible solutions at a hearing. "I think we can all agree this is cruel and unusual,” said state Rep. James Talarico, citing reports of children using water bottles as makeshift toilets while stuck in their cells and routinely hurting themselves to get attention from staff.
Talarico and 33 other House Democrats sent Gov. Greg Abbott a letter Monday asking him to bring lawmakers together immediately in a special legislative session to address the emergency. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond. The juvenile justice agency sounded the alarm last month, when interim director Shandra Carter stopped accepting newly sentenced kids from county detention centers. The agency can’t guarantee the safety of the fewer than 600 youth already in its care, she said, because it can’t keep people on the job. Last year, the turnover rate for detention officers hit more than 70 percent, and most new hires quit within six months. As of Tuesday, more than 160 children were waiting to be transferred from also understaffed county detention centers to the state’s five juvenile prisons, Carter said. For many children, the wait, which in some cases has been as long as three months, means more time in lockup as they are unable to begin and complete required programming.