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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

The pattern that was established from the stories was clear: complaints from employees and inmates were being passed up to the chain of command and then—nothing.

In the hands of the TYC Board of Supervisors, which consisted almost entirely of major GOP donors rather than qualified criminal justice professionals, the complaints had a tendency to die. (Texas' Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice, Don Clemmer, later testified that his office didn't have the resources to investigate allegations of sexual abuse at a TYC facility in Ward County because at the time the local agent was busy investigating charges of voter fraud by a 68-year-old Hispanic woman.)

In response to the outcry, Perry appointed his former chief of staff, Jay Kimbrough, to investigate the abuses, and hired an independent ombudsman to sit on the board.

But reports continued to pile up. In late 2007, Texas shut down three TYC facilities in quick succession, the last coming in October, when it shuttered a Coke County juvenile detention center after the ombudsman reported unsanitary conditions, such as feces in the shower and blocked-off emergency exits. Two months later, seven former inmates filed suit alleging that they had been sexually abused by guards at the facility, which was operated by the Florida-based private contractor, GEO Group.

Perry, for his part, would go on to benefit richly from those efforts, taking in $65,000 from GEO lobbyists and executives during his 2010 reelection campaign.

Kimbrough eventually put forward a list of 56 recommended reforms designed to consolidate management of the TYC facilities and reduce overcrowding. Thousands of kids, like Martinez's son Jimmy, were spending years at state facilities for non-violent offenses, and the juvenile detention system had the opposite of the intended effect; rather than rehabilitating kids and preparing them for reentry, it was a breeding ground for mental illness and a stepping stone to recidivism. Investigators criticized the TYC for its "culture" of punishment—a pervasive use of pepper spray, for instance, for even the most marginal of missteps.

With a nudge from activists like Yanez-Correa, the state pushed through a parents' bill of rights, a prohibition on housing non-violent offenders at TYC facilities, and renewed emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation. The state's chief executive, stayed on the sidelines for the most part, but signed off on the final package. "Perry didn't block it, he didn't say no, he didn't do anything to stop it," she says.

But the reform effort was complicated by the involvement of the GEO Group, and more broadly, the Perry administration's support for prison privatization at the expense of quality control. GEO's response to the Coke County scandal, said State Sen. John Whitmire, the Democratic chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, was to spend more money on lobbyists. As an exasperated Whitmire told the Dallas Morning News, "Now enters GEO with their paid lobbyists attempting to put a good face on this. I'm saying the corporation should back off."

In the year following the scandal, GEO scaled up its lobbying efforts dramatically, pouring $625,000 into lobbying efforts in Austin—more than 10 times what it had spent during the previous legislative session in 2005. Perry, for his part, would go on to benefit richly from those efforts, taking in $65,000 from GEO lobbyists and executives during his 2010 reelection campaign. Even as the stories of the TYC scandal were still trickling out, the blog Grits for Breakfast reported that the agency was taking steps to put even more children under contract care—specifically, it moved to place all 10 to 13 year-olds (about 20 percent of the state's juvenile residents) in privately operated facilities. (The plan was scrapped after local papers began snooping around.)

Even as Perry signed off on sentencing reform designed to reduce overcrowding and improve conditions, GEO got off with a slap on the wrist. With the exception of the shuttered Coke County facility, the company remained in good standing in Texas.

"There's no accountability other than the government will sometimes cancel an individual contract," says Bob Libal, who writes about the state corrections industry at the blog Texas Prison Bid'ness. "But there's never a bad performance clause that says we're not going to contract for you anymore if you cant maintain basic human rights at your facilities."

Even in the face of horrifying abuses, money had a way of opening doors. To wit, with reports of abuse still trickling out in 2007, Kimbrough, Perry's hand-picked choice to overhaul the TYC, awarded a $275,000 no-bid contract to Gregg Phillips, a friend of a Republican state representative with deep connections to Austin lobbyists but virtually no experience in corrections. As Kimbrough explained, "It doesn't matter to me if Gregg Phillips was on the grassy knoll in Dallas, Texas, if he has a solution that is good for the youth of TYC." Except there was nothing in in Phillips' record to suggest he had any—and Kimbrough hadn't checked.

Now, four years after the scandal broke, conditions at TYC facilities have improved substantially, but the fundmental concerns remain.

"It's been happening for years—how can you be acting like you just opened your eyes?" Martinez says now. "He knew what was going on. He knew!"

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