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Rick Perry’s Juvie Record

Why did the GOP presidential contender wait six years to clean up the culture of child rape at Texas youth detention centers?

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.

Mary Jane Martinez's son Jimmy entered the Texas criminal justice system in 2003 because he missed his school bus. He was charged with truancy and destruction of property (for throwing rocks) and sent to live in a county juvenile detention center for a sentence of six months. After five months, instead of being released, he was transferred to an academy 400 miles away, managed by the Texas Youth Commission, the agency that oversees detention and treatment centers across the state. Jimmy finally came home, four years after he was sent away, a period his mother now describes as a living hell. His best friend had been murdered, and Jimmy had been beaten and raped—both, Mrs. Martinez testifed, by TYC guards.

"It just made him worse," Martinez says of the treatment. "My son has PTSD now. He's schizo." Unable to find a job after getting out, he was arrested for burglary and landed in a prison facility eight hours away from his native San Antonio.

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Martinez's story is hardly an outlier. For years, the Texas juvenile justice system was wracked by reports of rape, unsanitary conditions, and physical abuse. According to statistics submitted by the TYC in 2007, 83 percent of residents who requested counseling that year were ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. At one youth facility in central Texas, the mistreatment and squalid conditions (feces on the walls and bed-sheets, steel bars blocking fire escapes) were so bad they left no choice but for the agency to shut it down entirely.

Gov. Rick Perry did not take swift action to address the problem, which his office knew about for years. Allegations of systematic mistreatment at TYC facilities first came to the Governor's desk in 2001, when then-Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) forwarded along a complaint that his office had received. That was six years before media coverage of the conditions in juvenile detention centers launched a public scandal. And critics of Perry, who is now a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, point out that he received tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and executives for a firm tied to some of the worst abuses.

Far from the picture initially painted by Perry, of a shocking scandal that was dealt with swiftly and emphatically, his administration had sat on the concerns for years.

The TYC's own numbers tell the tale. The commission officially reported 535 cases of abuse at its facilities in 2002, more than double the total from just four years earlier. Likewise, the number of residents diagnosed with mental illnesses skyrocketed during that same period, from 27 percent in 1995 to nearly half in 2002. And despite his office's initial denials, top Perry staffers had been formally briefed on abuses at juvenile justice facilities as early as 2005. In 2006, President Bush's Department of Justice even initiated a probe of the TYC conditions, but declined to intervene because it was not able to prove that any victims sustained "bodily injury."

"I think that prior to the abuse coming out, everybody dropped the ball—and I mean that by like everbody that was running the institution you know, everybody that had complaints, that knew about that complaints and did not bring it forward out of fear of retaliation, everybody dropped the ball," says Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a watchdog group that's pushed for more lenient sentencing guidelines.

Perry, for his part, tried to change the subject. "I think this 'When did you know? When did you know it? Do you think someone should have done more?' is missing the point of how are we making progress to getting these kids the protections that they need," he told reporters after the Austin American-Statesman reported on his administration's complicity in the abuses. Perry called on the Statesman to retract its report (the paper refused).

It was only when the public found out about the TYC abuses that Perry sprang into action—and even then, some of the worst offenders got off easy. In February of 2007, the Dallas Morning News broke the news that multiple employees at the West Texas State School, a juvenile detention center in the small town of Pyote, had filed formal complaints alleging that staffers had sexually assaulted inmates and traded favors for sex. But the agency, rather than investigating the claims, had simply deferred the charges to the local level, where the charges were dropped.

Over the next six months, the Morning News and the Texas Observer fleshed out the story: The abuses weren't unique to Pyote; all in all, the TYC had received 750 complaints of sexual misconduct from inmates since 2000, and it had, for the most part, failed to act. One prison guard who was accused of sexually assaulting inmates was found to be a registered sex offender already—and unbeknownst to the agency, was living on site with a 16-year-old boy.

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