BY ELIZABETH PIERSON The Brownsville Herald

March 19, 2006 - EDINBURG - Leadership is new, and abuses have dwindled, but Edinburg's juvenile prison is still recovering from a rash of beatings and altercations with juvenile prisoners in late 2004.

Physical abuse rates at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center decreased in 2005 by about one-third, from a high of 16 cases in 2004.

It's an indicator that the slow process of improving the facility is working, Superintendent Bart Caldwell said. He took over in January 2005, two months after the abuses occurred.

"I've been very vehement to my staff, (saying) now we're not here to hurt people, we are here to provide correctional therapy," Caldwell said. "And that does not involve thumping little Johnny on the head."

But recently, Evins has suffered from more unrest. Juvenile correctional officers there are not happy. About 40 employees met with state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, on Feb. 13 to express concern about their safety, Peña said.

"They were concerned about violence against the employees and that the atmosphere was dangerous for the young people at the facility," said Peña, who earlier this month toured Evins with Dwight Harris, executive director of TYC. After the tour, Peña said he is convinced that high youth-to-staff ratios are at least part of the problem. Officers at several facilities in TYC have said in recent months they fear for their safety because agency policies limit when they can restrain youth that they believe threaten them. Agency officials said policies would work if properly implemented and said they are working with employees to clarify confu-sion in the use-of-force rules.

Caldwell said he hopes once a fledgling Professional Development Academy adds training sessions agencywide, officers would react more appropriately.

Meanwhile, Evins is hemorrhaging. TYC predicts that more than half of the 180 officers at Evins will quit or be fired this year, up from 38 percent in 2005.

It's significantly worse than agencywide turnover of juvenile correctional officers, which is expected to reduce to 41 percent this year, down from 42 percent in 2005.

Caldwell attributes the turnover to opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley that give officers more choices for work. He agreed that some of the turnover is a hangover of the 2004 abuse.

"I would think that it's probably somewhat related to that, too," he said.

Evins was not alone in its 2004 violence. Rates of physical abuse statewide doubled that year and con-tinued to increase in 2005.

But Evins was unusual in that it involved so many cases in a short time. After students flooded a dorm during a riot in late October 2004, TYC sent reinforcements from other facilities to keep the peace. In-stead, some of them and Evins employees physically abused the boys and young men over a period of several days in early November.

In one case, a boy who didn't pull his shorts high enough was handcuffed and slammed headfirst into a door hard enough to create a baseball-size bump on his head. The officer then threw him into the air, and he landed on his head, spraining his neck, TYC records show.

In all, TYC investigators confirmed that eight officers abused youths in their custody. Four were fired, one received a written reprimand, and three appealed and had their cases overturned, said Tim Savoy, spokesman for TYC.

Of those who were cleared, one still works at Evins. Another works at the high-security facility in San Saba, Savoy said.

The agency faces lawsuits from the abuse, including one case in federal court in McAllen in which three boys and their guardians are asking for $4.5 million in damages, claiming the boys' civil rights were violated.

One of the plaintiffs is Lynda Jackson of New Braunfels. Her son, Lee Jackson, is now 17 and lives with her but was in Evins in November 2004.

That weekend, he laughed at an officer who had ordered another student not to eat in his bunk. The of-ficer handcuffed Lee behind his back, dragged him outside and threw him in a flowerbed at around 6:30 p.m., according to the lawsuit. Lee said his shoulder was injured and asked to see a doctor, but the officer denied the request.

Later the officer went to the boy in the flowerbed and applied pressure to the injured shoulder, saying, "We are going to do it our way now," the lawsuit states.

Officers brought him inside shortly, but later returned him to the flowerbed and removed his shoes and socks. He lay there until 10:30 p.m.

The primary officer involved was fired.

"Whether my son gets any money out of it or not, the point is they have to revamp the system to where it doesn't leave the children worse, because that's what it's doing," Lynda Jackson said.

TYC officials said they could not comment on details of the pending litigation.

Caseworker Nelina Garza also filed a lawsuit in state district court in Hidalgo County claiming co-workers and bosses harassed her after they learned she had reported the abuse. She is now on medical leave from her job, she said.

Despite employee unrest, Caldwell says Evins is a better place than it was in November 2004.

"Absolutely."

epierson@link.freedom.com

Posted on Mar 19, 06 | 12:00 am


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