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The Rape of American Prisoners

James Stenson
Troy Erik Isaac, who was raped repeatedly by fellow inmates at a California juvenile facility, where he was sent for vandalism at the age of twelve. He spent the next two decades in and out of prison; he now works as a peer counselor and speaks to young p

Adults who want to have sex with children sometimes look for jobs that will make it easy. They want authority over kids, but no very onerous supervision; they also want positions that will make them seem more trustworthy than their potential accusers. Such considerations have infamously led quite a few pedophiles to sully the priesthood over the years, but the priesthood isn’t for everyone. For some people, moral authority comes less naturally than blunter, more violent kinds.

Ray Brookins worked for the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), the state’s juvenile detention agency. In October 2003, he was hired as head of security at the West Texas State School in Pyote. Like most TYC facilities, it’s a remote place. The land is flat to the horizon, scattered with slowly bobbing oil derricks, and always windy. It’s a long way from the families of most kids confined there, who tend to be urban and poor; a long way from any social services, or even the police. It must have seemed perfect to Brookins—and also to John Paul Hernandez, who was hired as the school’s principal around the same time. Almost immediately, Brookins started pulling students out of their dorms at night, long after curfew, and bringing them to the administration building. When asked why, he said it was for cleaning.1

In fact, according to official charges, for sixteen months Brookins and Hernandez molested the children in their care: in offices and conference rooms, in dorms and darkened broom closets and, at night, out in the desert. The boys tried to tell members of the staff they trusted; they also tried, both by letter and through the school’s grievance system, to tell TYC officials in Austin. They did so knowing that they might be retaliated against physically, and worse, knowing that if Brookins caught them complaining he could and would extend their confinement,2 and keep on abusing them.3 They did so because they were desperate. But they were ignored by the authorities who should have intervened: both those running the school and those running the Texas Youth Commission.4 Nor did other officials of the TYC who were informed by school staff about molestation take action.

Finally, in late February 2005, a few of the boys approached a volunteer math tutor named Marc Slattery. Something “icky” was going on, they said. Slattery knew it would be futile to go to school authorities—his parents, also volunteers, had previously told the superintendent of their own suspicions, and were “brow beat” for making allegations without proof5—so the next morning he called the Texas Rangers.6 A sergeant named Brian Burzynski made the ninety-minute drive from his office in Fort Stockton that afternoon. “I saw kids with fear in their eyes,” he testified later, “kids who knew they were trapped in an institution where the system would not respond to their cries for help.”7

Slattery had only reported complaints against Brookins, not against Hernandez, but talking to the boys, Burzynski quickly realized that the principal was also a suspect. (Hernandez, it seems, was less of a bully than Brookins. When a boy resisted Brookins’s advances in 2004, he was shackled in an isolation cell for thirteen hours.8 Hernandez preferred to cajole students into sex with offers of chocolate cake, or help getting into college, or a place to stay after they were released.9) The two men were suspended and their homes searched—at which point it was discovered that Brookins was living on school grounds with a sixteen-year-old, who was keeping some of Brookins’s “vast quantity of pornographic materials” under his bed.10 Suspected semen samples were taken from the carpet, furniture, and walls of Brookins’s office. He quickly resigned. In April, Hernandez was told he would be fired, whereupon he too resigned.

When the TYC received Burzynski’s findings, it launched its own investigation. The internal report this produced was deeply flawed. Investigators didn’t interview or blame senior administrators in Austin, though many of them had seen the warning signs and explicit claims of abuse at Pyote. But agency officials saw how damning the story was. Neither their report nor Burzynski’s was made public.11

The Rangers forwarded Burzynski’s report to Randall Reynolds, the local district attorney, but he did nothing. Even though it’s a crime in all fifty states for corrections staff to have sex with inmates of any age, prosecutors rarely bring charges in such cases. For a time, from the TYC’s perspective, the problem seemed to go away. The agency suspended Lemuel “Chip” Harrison, the superintendent of the school, for ninety days after concluding its investigation—he had ignored complaints about Brookins and Hernandez from many members of the staff—but then it promoted him, making him director of juvenile corrections. Brookins found a job at a hotel in Austin, and Hernandez, astonishingly, became principal of a charter school in Midland.

Rumors have a way of spreading, though, however slowly. Eventually some reporters started digging, and on February 16, 2007, Nate Blakeslee broke the story in The Texas Observer. Doug Swanson followed three days later in The Dallas Morning News, starting an extraordinary run of investigative reporting in that paper: forty articles on abuse and mismanagement in the TYC by the end of March 2007, and to date more than seventy.12 Pyote was only the beginning. The TYC’s culture was thoroughly corrupt: rot had spread to all thirteen of its facilities.

Since January 2000, it turned out, juvenile inmates had filed more than 750 complaints of sexual misconduct by staff. Even that number was generally thought to underrepresent the true extent of such abuse, because most children were too afraid to report it: TYC staff commonly had their favorite inmates beat up those who complained. And even when they did file grievances, the kids knew it was unlikely to do them much good. Reports were frequently sabotaged, evidence routinely destroyed.13

In the same six-year period, ninety-two TYC staff had been disciplined or fired for sexual contact with inmates, which can be a felony. (One wonders just how blatant they must have been.) But again, as children’s advocate Isela Gutierrez put it, “local prosecutors don’t consider these kids to be their constituents.”14 Although five of the ninety-two were “convicted of lesser charges related to sexual misconduct,” all received probation or had their cases deferred. Not one agency employee in those six years was sent to prison for sexually abusing a confined child.15 And despite fierce public outrage at the scandal, neither Brookins nor Hernandez has yet faced trial. In the face of overwhelming evidence, but with recent history making their convictions unlikely, both claim innocence.

Texas is hardly the only state with a troubled juvenile justice system. In 2004, the Department of Justice investigated a facility in Plainfield, Indiana, where kids sexually abused each other so often and in such numbers that staff created flow charts to track the incidents. The victims were frequently as young as twelve or thirteen; investigators found “youths weighing under seventy pounds who engaged in sexual acts with youths who weighed as much as 100 pounds more than them.”16 A youth probation officer in Oregon was arrested the same year on more than seventy counts of sex crimes against children, and one of his victims hanged himself.17 In Florida in 2005, corrections officers housed a severely disabled fifteen-year-old boy whose IQ was 32 with a seventeen-year-old sex offender, giving the seventeen-year-old the job of bathing him and changing his diaper. Instead, the seventeen-year-old raped him repeatedly.18

The list of such stories goes on and on. After each of them was made public, it was possible for officials to contend that they reflected anomalous failings of a particular facility or system. But a report just issued on January 7 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) should change that. Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), and easily the largest and most authoritative study of the issue ever conducted, it makes clear that the crisis of sexual abuse in juvenile detention is nationwide.

Across the country, 12.1 percent of kids questioned in the BJS survey said that they’d been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That’s nearly one in eight, or approximately 3,220, out of the 26,550 who were eligible to participate. The survey, however, was only given at large facilities that held young people who had been “adjudicated”—i.e., found by a court to have committed an offense—for at least ninety days, which is more restrictive than it may sound. In total, according to the most recent data, there are nearly 93,000 kids in juvenile detention on any given day.19 Although we can’t assume that 12.1 percent of the larger number were sexually abused—many kids not covered by the survey are held for short periods of time, or in small facilities where rates of abuse are somewhat lower—we can say confidently that the BJS’s 3,220 figure represents only a small fraction of the children sexually abused in detention every year.

What sort of kids get locked up in the first place? Only 34 percent of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes. (More than 200,000 youth are also tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day approximately 8,500 kids under eighteen are confined in adult prisons and jails. Although probably at greater risk of sexual abuse than any other detained population, they haven’t yet been surveyed by the BJS.) According to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was itself created by PREA, more than 20 percent of those in juvenile detention were confined for technical offenses such as violating probation, or for “status offenses” like missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home. (“These kids have been raped their whole lives,” said a former officer from the TYC’s Brownwood unit.20) Many suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.

Fully 80 percent of the sexual abuse reported in the study was committed not by other inmates but by staff. And surprisingly, 95 percent of the youth making such allegations said that they were victimized by female staff. Sixty-four percent of them reported at least one incident of sexual contact with staff in which no force or explicit coercion was used. Staff caught having sex with inmates often claim it’s consensual. But staff have enormous control over inmates’ lives. They can give inmates privileges, such as extra food or clothing or the opportunity to wash, and they can punish them: everything from beatings to solitary confinement to extended detention. The notion of a truly consensual relationship in such circumstances is grotesque even when the inmate is not a child.

Nationally, however, fewer than half of the corrections officials whose sexual abuse of juveniles is confirmed are referred for prosecution, and almost none are seriously punished. A quarter of all known staff predators in state youth facilities are allowed to keep their positions.21

  1. 1

    Nate Blakeslee, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” The Texas Observer, February 23, 2007 (published on the Web on February 16). This was the first story in the press about the troubles at Pyote, and is probably still the single best account of them.

  2. 2

    At TYC, an inmate’s length of stay is determined by a complex and controversial program known as Resocialization,…[which] is composed of specific academic, behavioral, and therapeutic objectives. Each category has numbered steps, known as phases, that the offender must reach…. Inmates have complained that TYC guards often retaliate against them by lodging disciplinary actions that cause phase setbacks.” (Holly Becka and Gregg Jones, “Length of Stay Fluid for Many TYC Inmates,” The Dallas Morning News, March 24, 2007.) At Pyote, more advanced phases also meant greater privileges: access to “hygiene items,” for example (Burzynski, Report of Investigation, p. 52).

  3. 3

    After Burzynski began his investigation, the school superintendent determined that at least 25 students had been kept at the facility without adequate cause. (Report of Investigation, p. 63). Brookins also seems to have pursued at least one student after his release from juvenile detention. (Report of Investigation, pp. 73–74.)

  4. 4

    Nate Blakeslee, “New Evidence of Altered Documents in TYC Coverup,” The Texas Observer, March 11, 2007. See also Blakeslee, “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

  5. 5

    Tish Elliott-Wilkins, Summary Report for Administrative Review, p. 6.

  6. 6

    The Texas Rangers Division is a law enforcement agency with statewide jurisdiction; typically, Rangers become involved in cases that local authorities are unwilling or unable to handle properly.

  7. 7

    Emily Ramshaw, “Lawmakers Lambaste TYC Board for Failing to Act,” The Dallas Morning News, March 8, 2007.

  8. 8

    Burzynski, Report on Investigation, p. 7. TYC policy states that when students are placed in shackles, administrators must reiterate their approval every thirty minutes; Brookins, however, “told security staff not to bother him about the situation until the next morning.”

  9. 9

    Burzynski, Report on Investigation, pp. 32 and 36.

  10. 10

    Accused TYC Official Lived with Boy,” The Dallas Morning News, March 8, 2007. Both Brookins and the boy denied that they were having a sexual relationship.

  11. 11

    The TYC did, however, send a copy of the report to its board of directors; and it later turned out that Governor Rick Perry’s office had been warned about sexual abuse in the TYC by multiple sources. See Ramshaw, “Lawmakers Lambaste TYC Board for Failing to Act”; Nate Blakeslee, “Sins of Commission,” Texas Monthly, May 2007; and Doug J. Swanson and Steve McGonigle, “Mistakes, Mismanagement Wrecked TYC,” The Dallas Morning News, May 13, 2007.

  12. 12

    For an index of these, see www.shron.wordpress.com/texas-youth-commission-scandal/. The paper also put a number of video interviews on its Web site, available at www.dallasnews.com/s/dws/photography/2007/tyc/.

  13. 13

    See Gregg Jones, Holly Becka, and Doug J. Swanson, “TYC Facilities Ruled by Fear,” The Dallas Morning News, March 18, 2007:

    Brenda Faulk, 45, a correctional officer at [the Crockett State School] from 1997 until 2005, said it was common for documentation of abuses—broken bones, black eyes, concussions—to go missing. Photographs of injuries would vanish from infirmary files. Logbook pages would disappear.

    See also Christy Hoppe and Doug J. Swanson, “TYC Sex Assaults Ignored,” The Dallas Morning News, March 5, 2007. In 2006, the Department of Justice investigated the TYC’s Evins Regional Juvenile Center and found that “Evins fails to adequately protect the youths in its care from youth and staff violence”; incidents of staff-on-youth violence were often recorded by the facility’s security cameras, but according to its own investigator, “in about two-thirds of the cases, the video of an incident has been deleted before he is able to secure a copy for his investigation.” (Wan J. Kim, “Letter to Rick Perry, Governor, Texas, Regarding Investigation of the Evins Regional Juvenile Center, Edinburg, Texas,” March 15, 2007, available at www.justice.gov/crt/split/documents/evins_findlet_3-15-07.pdf.)

  14. 14

    See Blakeslee, “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

  15. 15

    See Doug J. Swanson, “Sex Abuse Reported at Youth Jail,” The Dallas Morning News, February 18, 2007.

  16. 16

    See Bradley J. Schlozman, “Letter to Mitch Daniels, Governor, Indiana, Regarding Investigation of the Plainfield Juvenile Correctional Facility, Indiana,” September 9, 2005, available at www.justice.gov/crt/split/documents/split_indiana_plainfield_juv_findlet _9-9-05.pdf.

  17. 17

    See “Teens’ Abuser Gets Locked Up for Life,” The Oregonian, October 14, 2005.

  18. 18

    See “Herald Watchdog: Juvenile Justice: State Put Disabled Boy in Sex Offender’s Care,” Miami Herald, October 20, 2005.

  19. 19

    See www.ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp.

  20. 20

    See Doug J. Swanson, “Sex Abuse Alleged at 2nd Youth Jail,” The Dallas Morning News, March 2, 2007. The article goes on to say that most inmates in Texas juvenile facilities “don’t have criminal records because they are adjudicated as delinquent in a civil hearing and committed to TYC for open-ended periods…. About 60 percent of them come from low-income homes. More than half have families with criminal histories, and 36 percent had a childhood history of abuse or neglect. Some 80 percent have IQs below the mean score of 100.”

  21. 21

    See “Sexual Violence Reported by Juvenile Correctional Authorities, 2005–06,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, available at www.bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/svrjca0506.pdf.

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