USA: Gangs, lack of guards spark teen riot at understaffed Texas juvenile prison

Spurred by boredom, gang conflicts and anger over a lack of guards, teens at a North Texas juvenile prison rioted for six days, assaulting officers and each other during a mass disturbance that boiled over during a football game.

The outburst at Gainesville State School, a scandal-plagued Texas Juvenile Justice Department unit 60 miles north of Dallas, came weeks after facility supervisor Mike Studamire was fired for vague reasons.

Following the November disruption, the facility went into lockdown, four other top officials were fired, and the agency shuttered the unit’s budding equine therapy program, according to interviews and internal documents. Use of force and pepper spray spiked at the understaffed lock-up, which one employee described as so chaotic that the riot didn’t even stand out.

“Our staff was in control of the facility at all times,” said agency spokesman Brian Sweany. “Since these disruptions, we have worked hard to address those issues that led to these events and have worked closely with staff to ensure that the campus is moving forward and enacting the agency’s reform agenda.”

The turbulence comes barely a year after a new executive director took the helm, hoping to clean up an agency still reeling from a 2017 sex abuse scandal in which multiple officers were accused of having or trying to have sex with teenaged inmates. Since then, multiple officers have been terminated in other incidents and this month local police arrested a guard who allegedly assaulted her boyfriend — the facility’s security chief — during a Super Bowl bash held in on-campus officer housing.

To union officials, the persistent difficulties stem from low pay and a lack of officers.

“The ongoing and escalating problems in TJJD are directly tied to the turnover and the loss of experienced staff in the agency,” said Seth Hutchinson, vice president of the state employee union. “The turnover is higher than any other state agency, the injury rate is higher and the pay for a juvenile corrections officer is barely above what you can make at Buc-ee’s.”

Mass disturbance

The six-day riot started on the evening of Nov. 29, according to state records. The next night, the disturbance grew and while some of the youth were off-campus representing the Gainesville Tornadoes football team in a state semi-final game, up to a few dozen of the teens left behind launched an apparently pre-planned mass disturbance.

Youths on multiple dorms embarked on coordinated effort to set off the fire alarms, blowing dust into the smoke detectors to automatically release the door locks, officials said. Then they ran around the sprawling campus and caused disruption. A quarterly report from the Office of the Independent Ombudsman references staff assaults, inmate assaults and destruction of property.

The “disruptive behavior” continued through at least Dec. 4, causing a “major campus-wide disruption of facility operations.”

The reasons for the riot boiled down to three things: gang-related conflicts, boredom, and a desire to protest over “issues on campus,” according to the ombudsman report.

At the most recent count, 26 of the unit’s 165 inmates — or 15 percent — were considered documented gang members, according to Sweany. A current employee, however, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, described the facility as the “Wild West” with an ongoing uptick in gang activity.

It’s not a new problem; earlier last year an ombudsman report noted an increase in inmate-on-inmate assaults “attributable to gang activity and youth vying for leadership positions within the various gang factions.” During a site visit over the summer, officials spotted kids openly using gang signs and handshakes.

In addition to the gang conflicts, according to the ombudsman report, the lack of activities and “extended confinement in rooms” contributed to the disruption, along with a desire to protest “case management issues,” failure to respond to concerns and staff shortages that negatively impacted life on the campus. At the time, the unit was about 30 percent understaffed, officials said.

In a written response to the report, the department acknowledged a “lack of consistent structured programming” and said that “the youth were confined to their dorms for a larger portion of the day than is optimal.”

The response also noted plans for January training to help staff “properly engage” with kids and offer more trauma-informed recreational activities. The department spokesman confirmed that training has since occurred.

Though he pushed back on describing the chaos as a riot, Sweany did not dispute the report findings, saying it presented a “reasonably accurate depiction” of the disturbances.

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