AUSTIN (AP) – Down the long central hallway at one of Texas’ oldest prisons, through three sets of clanging steel-barred doors, convicts in white uniforms stand in sweaty lines waiting to go to their midday meal.
Most have been convicted of violent crimes. Rape. Kidnapping. Sex assault. Murder.
Most have been in criminal street gangs.
All are legally still children, less than 18 years old.
Had they not been certified as adults by Texas courts, the 63 youths in a little-known program at the Clemens Unit south of Houston would have landed in one of the state’s six state-run lockups for juveniles. In those facilities, counseling and rehabilitation programs come first.
But as the system has taken on more violent youths in recent years, escalating violence and gang warfare, even riots, have left dozens of people injured and sparked a legislative investigation.
There are no such issues here, even though the youths have rap sheets almost identical to those of offenders in the troubled youth lockups.
“The reason is that security comes first,” said Senior Warden Todd Harris, a no-nonsense prison veteran who has overseen the one-of-a-kind program in Texas for two years. “Without it, you can’t have successful programs.”
Amid continuing violence in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department lockups — new disturbances had to be quelled last week at the Giddings State School and the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg — legislative leaders and other officials are looking to this program for possible answers.
Even so, the Youthful Offender Program has not been without its critics, who argue that trying to turn around youths in a concrete-and-steel prison environment only makes rehabilitation more difficult.
“The increased concentration of youth with very high needs in our secure facilities has to be matched with a heightened concentration of staff who are well-equipped to make every child in these facilities safe,” said Eileen Garcia, CEO of the statewide advocacy group Texans Care for Children.
“This is a critical moment. We must not return to the days when Texas indiscriminately locked up children who could otherwise turn their lives around.”
On a recent day, through a door at the end of the long central hallway at the Clemens Unit, a “psycho-drama” is in progress. Two groups of teenage convicts in prison whites sit in chairs watching two others act out the aftermath of a murder.
Nicholas Cantu, 17, plays the lead. The baby-faced San Antonio youth is serving 30 years for murder, for participating in the shooting death of his father three years ago.
Another young convict lies motionless on a table in front of him, representing a dead man. “I’m going to hurt you before you hurt me,” Cantu tells the motionless convict.
Mark Holmes, a prison psychologist, cuts in. “You stabbed this man over 65 times. … What affects him affects you. Replace your bad thoughts with new thoughts. Get rid of your stinking thinking.”
The point of the exercise, officials said, is to get the youths to realize that their crimes can have serious consequences that affect other people, families, even entire communities.
Once the drama is complete, the convicts convene in groups to talk about how they can change their thoughts to avoid getting in trouble again. For Cantu, that means focusing on getting a college education and staying away from marijuana, gangs and other bad influences.
“I’ve learned a lot about cognitive self-change,” Cantu explained. “I think different now. I didn’t have any aspirations before. I think about the future now, for when I’m released.”
That will not come anytime soon. His soonest parole date is 12 years away. The end of his sentence is 27 years from now, when he will be 45.
For every convict like Cantu in prison, there are about 17 more in the lower-security juvenile lockups. Statistics reviewed by the American-Statesman show most youths in both systems are there for crimes of violence. A high percentage are members of criminal street gangs, and many have lengthy criminal histories.
While the youths may statistically look much the same, their living conditions couldn’t be more different.
At the juvenile centers, youths live mostly in dorms at campus-like lockups, with sofas, TVs and other comforts of home. Treatment and education programs take first priority. Students who advance in their programs can be rewarded with pizza parties and access to video games, among other perks.
At Clemens, such perks are unheard of. The youths wear prison uniforms, live in grimy, foul-smelling cellblocks without air conditioning and with chipped paint and graffiti on the walls. They might work in the fields.
Another difference is that youths at other lockups can be serving time for both determinate or indeterminate sentences, meaning they can get out sooner if they behave and complete their programs fast. In the Clemens Unit, all convicts have determinate sentences — meaning many won’t get out until they are middle-aged.
In years past, teens sentenced to the youth lockups were generally there for lesser crimes. The ones certified as adults and sent to the Clemens Unit were generally the tougher and violent offenders. But now, with changes in state law, most of the lesser-crime youths are sent to community-based programs, and the ones sent to juvenile lockups are much tougher costumers than ever before.
The youths in the Clemens program range in age from 15 to 17 and represent all of the state’s teenagers who are certified as adults because of the severity of their crimes. When they turn 18, they move to the adult cellblocks or to another state prison.
“We use a behavior modification model — if they improve their outlook, if they participate in programs, they advance to less restrictions,” said Rick Thaler, Texas’ prison division director. At Clemens, the young convicts without exception admit that strict rules are important, even as they complain about the restrictions.
“If there were no consequences in here, if there were no rules, if security was not maintained, it would be anarchy,” Cantu said, echoing the sentiments of others. “Eventually the inmates would develop their own disciplinary system.”
Thaler and Harris said disruptive behavior in the Clemens program has consequences. “If they don’t follow the rules, they get more restrictions,” Harris said. “That’s easy to understand.”
For the youths, more restrictions can mean spending time in solitary confinement for fighting each other, assaulting guards or vandalizing property. At juvenile lockups, there is no such thing as solitary confinement, although youths sometimes are moved briefly to a separate dorm for their safety or the security of others.
Dillion Compton, 17, serving 25 years for sexual assault of a child in Dallas, found out consequences quickly after he arrived five months ago. Fighting landed him in solitary confinement for a week.
“I’m not going back there,” he said. “It was pretty hot.” He recently completed his GED and has set his sights on a job in the computer industry when he gets out. His earliest parole date is 2023. Without parole, he will stay in prison until 2035 — 23 years away.
Many of the teenage convicts in the program said they arrived scared, not knowing what would happen. The stinky steel-barred cells, the march to the chow hall for passable food, the constant noise of clanging doors and shouting quickly made most wish they had never broken the law, they said.
Like other convicts at this 900-bunk prison, the teenage offenders rise every day about 3 a.m., go to breakfast, then to mandatory school and programs, then to work programs. They are housed two to a cell, in a red-brick, four-tier-high cellblock that was built during the 1960s.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be fun. It’s prison,” said Nathan Johns, 17, serving four years for stealing guns in a Tyler home burglary. “It’s helped to get my head straight. I want to get out and never come back. I want to get my education, to go to college.”
Madeline Ortiz, director of the prison system’s rehabilitation programs, said that is exactly the goal of the program.
“These kids need structure. And you can’t have successful programs without a secure environment,” she said. “That is part of the structure they need.”
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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