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More on Coke County

The Austin Chronicle recently weighed in on the Coke County scandal that plagued the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) last month. Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (D-McAllen) continues to hold GEO Group accountable for the horrible conditions uncovered at the private youth lockup.

"I'm not surprised at what we found at Coke," said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, author of last session's TYC-reforming Senate Bill 103. "GEO Group has a long history of problems and litigations, not only in Texas but around the country."

It is clear from the way that horrid conditions at Coke County came to light a great deal needs to be done in terms of improving oversight of private prisons throughout Texas.

According to officials involved at all levels, three investigations were conducted at Coke County over several weeks. Those investigations were conducted by three separate agencies that included the Harris County TYC Review Monitor, the Independent Ombudsman Office, and TYC's Internal Audit Division.

The Harris County Juvenile Probation Board established a TYC Review Monitor position when the TYC scandals were widely publicized in media outlets earlier this year. Using statutory authority that requires agencies to share information, the TYC monitor travels to youth prisons around the state to insure that Harris County youth are confined in safe and humane conditions.

The Independent Ombudsman office was created as a part of the omnibus reform package passed during the 80th Legislature -- SB 103. The Ombudsman reports to the Conservator. The office is staffed by Will Harrell, the former Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas. At a recent hearing, Harrell stated that the lines of authority for his office were not clear, but that when he completes investigations of youth lockups he sends the reports to the Governor's office and the Conservator. However, it is clear that how the Ombudsman works with TYC officials to improve conditions issues must still be worked out. According to Jim Hurley, TYC Spokesperson:

Hurley applauded his [Harrell] report's content, he was concerned that he did not receive a copy until after his office's own investigation was complete. "If I'm the ombudsman, and I'm out there, I'm not going to go away, write a report, and then not send it to the one person who can actually make changes."

At a recent TYC oversight hearing convened by the House Corrections Committee, Harrell stated he would start sending reports to TYC's Acting Executive Director - Dimitria Pope.

Another layer of oversight includes TYC's own Quality Assurance Monitors who are supposed to insure compliance with private contractors. Yet, it was these monitors -- four hired to oversee Coke County -- who were found to have serious conflict of interests that covered up the squalid conditions at the facility.

According to Hurley, the most worrying fact is that the on-site quality-assurance monitors had given the facility a clean bill of health. In his report, Harrell singled them out for criticism, writing, "With so many Q/A's assigned to this single facility, more than my staff for the entire state, why do these problems persist?"

Pope has promised at recent legislative hearings, that a review of the agency's contract monitoring system is underway. As this new information surfaces we will keep you informed.

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