HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - Two deck chairs sit underneath a palm tree, empty and inviting. In the distance, yachts sail on calm waters. The outline of a coastal city stands out in relief against the blue sky.
The Dallas Morning News reports the murals here depict a fantasy belied by prison life. Look right, the simple paintings evoke an unencumbered island existence. Look left, bars separate the red-brick room from the yard outside. In the distance, the walls are topped with barbed wire.
This wing of the O.B. Ellis Unit in Huntsville, 86 miles north of Houston, used to house death row inmates. Soon, it will be the new home of the COURAGE Youthful Offender Program, where the state incarcerates teen inmates who are tried as adults and convicted of serious felonies.
For decades, the “YOP,” as it’s known, was headquartered in the Clemens Unit on the coast, a smaller, much older facility. But after an adult inmate was caught engaging in a sex act with a teen last year, the warden lost his job and the state decided to move the program. A new youth wing at the Ellis Unit is completely revamped and renovated; a fresh start for a long-divisive program.
The program’s 31 teens - men in the eyes of the law - will arrive soon, probably later this summer. Their rehabilitation will depend on the choices they make, prison officials said, and on changes the officials say have re-created the way Texas will treat the troubled teens.
“The reinvention of the COURAGE Program at the Ellis Unit will provide additional opportunities for these youthful offenders,” Jeremy Desel, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told The Dallas Morning News. “The move to this new location creates a more conducive environment for the offenders to learn and use tangible life skills that will shape their future choices.”
The age of criminal responsibility in Texas is 17, and, based on the nature of their felony offenses, scofflaws as young as 14 can be “certified” and tried as adults. But the federal government requires anyone under 18 to be incarcerated separately from adults. The COURAGE Youthful Offender Program accommodates the teens caught in between, the handful of mostly 17-year-olds who can’t be sent to juvenile prisons because they’re considered adults under Texas law.
This number has always been low. Since 2012, the program has been home to no more than 70 inmates at the end of each fiscal year. In July 2017, there were just 25 teen inmates in the program statewide.
Regardless of its small size, the YOP has been divisive. For years, it’s been heralded by lawmakers who have proposed funneling more kids from the juvenile system into the program, but opposed by criminal justice advocates who say no one under 18 should be incarcerated in an adult prison.
Then last year, an adult inmate working as a janitor “digitally penetrated” one of these teens through the bars of his cell. No criminal charges were brought because the teenager was 17, the age of consent in Texas, and both inmates claimed the sex act was consensual.
At the time, Desel said the sex act was isolated and denied claims a whistleblower made to The News that the YOP program was mired in a “culture of cover-up” that masked years of abuse and neglect.
Nearly the entire program staff lost their jobs after the incident - including the whistleblower - and the then-warden was forced to retire. But TDCJ also decided it was time to move the program in its entirety, transferring the inmates and staff 140 miles north from Brazoria to Huntsville.
During a recent tour of the program’s new home, agency representatives said re-creating the program goes beyond a change in scenery and a renovated facility.
A mural greets new arrivals to the new YOP wing at the Ellis Unit. Seven stairs painted with seven words remind teen offenders what COURAGE means here - “Challenge, Opportunity, Understanding, Respect, Acceptance, Growth, Education.”
Pass through the door and it’s all fresh paint and new fixtures. The wing is bright, with large floor-to-ceiling windows and extra exhaust fans to keep the space a bit cooler during Texas’ triple-digit summers. There’s a long metal table for chow time, rooms for one-on-one-counseling, and, outside, a new basketball court.
Until 1999, this wing housed Texas’ death row inmates.
Walking through the cellblock, which can accommodate 52 male inmates, Ellis Unit Senior Warden Michael Roesler said he wants to host a gardening and landscaping class out in the recreation yard.
“What it looks like now today is not going to be what it looks like in six months,” Roesler said, gesturing around him. Nine televisions - three for each floor of cells - flicker overhead, the word “choices” flashing on their screens. He pointed to the small strip of grass outside, which would accommodate his “horticulture” class, and added, “who knows” what other programs they could add.
Rene Hinojosa, director of the Rehabilitation Programs Division, said providing these services will be facilitated by better intra-agency coordination. TDCJ is based in Huntsville, so “one of the motivations for bringing this program here is to tap into the (agency’s) resources.”
Think better coordination with TDCJ’s investigative office, Hinojosa said, more locally based personnel, improved release and re-entry services and new educational opportunities.
LeEtta Clabron, the agency’s executive principal, and interim principal Shirley Garcia said students will have access to an expanded literacy curriculum, training in science, technology, engineering and math and a leadership academy. Staff will also be trained in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, a federal framework to reinforce following rules and positive social interaction.
It’s all about “treating people the way we want to be treated,” Garcia said.
The very small number of female youthful offenders (just five at the end of fiscal 2017) are housed at the Hilltop Unit, an adult women’s prison in Gatesville. There is no indication they will be moved or similar changes will be made to their programming there. The young men here at Ellis will make up a fraction at this prison, which has a maximum capacity of more than 2,000 adult inmates.
But the biggest change will be that the new YOP will be totally self-contained.
At Clemens, adults and teens under 18 years old were housed separately to comply with federal law. But the inmates mixed in the educational setting, and the age and layout of the old prison made it impossible to keep teens and adult from interacting.
The new YOP program at Ellis, by contrast, will be “all inclusive.”
The teens in YOP will eat, live and get counseling within the walls of their separate wing to ensure “complete separation from adult offenders.” The guards, who will be specially trained to deal with teens, will be dedicated solely to the youth wing. There is a medical triage unit in house, so the young men won’t have to leave if they sustain a minor injury, and the wing also has two “additional separation” cells so teens who act out or need extra protection can be housed individually here.
Ensuring adult and youth offenders are never alone together could help avoid another incident like that at Clemens last year. In fact, the only time YOP inmates will come face-to-face with adult prisoners will be when they make the short trip to the prison classroom. And even then, officials said additional precautions will be taken to ensure as little contact as possible is made.
“The steps we take affect the choices we make!” a mural at the exit reads. “Will my choices meet my needs?”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
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