West Texas Juvenile Prison Officials Accused Of Molestation

In cold bureaucratic language, the official reports describe lurid acts: High-ranking officials at an isolated state juvenile prison were molesting young male inmates.

Many prison staffers at the West Texas State School complained about the abuse to their immediate bosses and to officials in Austin, the reports say. But, for more than a year, no one in charge did anything to stop it. Evidence was ignored or covered up. Two years after a Texas Rangers investigation concluded, no one has been prosecuted.

Some former employees say similar problems afflict many prisons run by the Texas Youth Commission, whose official mission is to "fix broken children."

"The TYC has established a dynasty of corruption that condones the mistreatment of youth in its care," said Randal Chance, a retired inspector general for the agency. "Staff are being paid your tax money to rape your children."

TYC Executive Director Dwight Harris said agency officials were stunned when they learned, in 2005, that the Texas Rangers had substantiated charges of abuse at the Pyote facility.

"Quite frankly, it was a shock and a surprise to us that this could ever happen," Mr. Harris said.

But a TYC internal investigation, "Summary Report for Administrative Review," released last week to The Dallas Morning News, said that a West Texas caseworker raised the issue in a letter to Mr. Harris five months before the Rangers' investigation.

"There are definitely places where we had opportunities we missed," said Tim Savoy, TYC spokesman. "We regret doing that."

The reports obtained by The News say the abuse stemmed from a culture in which prison officials were free to abuse their power, punish children who tried to complain about them, and reward those who gave them sexual favors.

The school's principal allegedly lured inmates into sexual acts with offers of birthday cake and promises of help getting into college. The assistant superintendent was accused of sexual contact with several youths.

Both men bought the silence of young victims by threatening to lengthen their sentences, the investigation says.

After more than a year of quiet complaints within TYC, the situation in Pyote officially came to light in February 2005, when a Texas Ranger sergeant launched an investigation. But the matter received little public notice until recently, when state legislators and news organizations, including The News and The Texas Observer, began asking questions.

Ray Brookins, former assistant superintendent at Pyote, and John Paul Hernandez, former principal, both resigned their jobs in 2005 in lieu of termination. Each earned about $58,000 a year at the state school.

Mr. Brookins, 41, who lives in Austin, declined to comment.

Mr. Hernandez, 41, asked if he committed the acts described in the reports, said, "Oh, absolutely not." He said he was declining further comment on the advice of his lawyer.

Until last week Mr. Hernandez was the principal of the Richard Milburn Academy, a charter school in Midland. On Thursday, he was placed on paid leave pending an investigation.

The top official at the Pyote facility for much of the time under investigation was Lemuel "Chip" Harrison, the superintendent.

TYC's inspector general said Mr. Harrison received repeated reports of wrongdoing, but those reports were "not properly reported and not addressed with documented supervisory intervention by Mr. Harrison."

Mr. Harrison was put on probation for 90 days as a result. But he was subsequently promoted to director of juvenile corrections for TYC.

He told The News on Saturday that he had not seen the TYC report, but, "I don't know of anybody who ever covered up anything."

Mr. Harrison said that he was told only once of Mr. Brookins having youths in his office late at night and that he counseled the assistant superintendent to stop. "Nobody ever came out and said this man is doing something wrong with these kids, that this man is abusing these kids," Mr. Harrison said.

The cases involving Mr. Brookins and Mr. Hernandez were referred to federal authorities, who declined to prosecute. But Ward County District Attorney Randall Reynolds said recently that the state cases involving Mr. Brookins and Mr. Hernandez are pending. He declined to say if he would present them to a grand jury.

TYC houses the state's young offenders, ages 10 to 21, who are considered the most dangerous, incorrigible or chronic. "They have often already failed at any number of intervention attempts," the agency says. "The biggest challenge is to teach youth how to succeed."

Some get a different sort of lesson. Since 2000, more than 90 employees at TYC facilities - some of them contractors - have been disciplined or fired for sexual misconduct with inmates.

Such contact can be a state felony, punishable by up to two years in prison.

TYC officials say they do not track prosecutions of employees accused of sexual misconduct. A review by The News of the staffers disciplined by TYC found that five had been convicted of lesser charges related to sexual misconduct. All received probation or deferred adjudication. None went to prison.

The West Texas State School, surrounded by desert, was originally part of a World War II airfield known as the Rattlesnake Bomber Base. It covers 52 acres along Interstate 20 between Midland and Pecos. About 250 male inmates are held there.

Reports by the TYC's investigators paint a picture of multiple, frequent and poorly hidden sexual conduct by staff with inmates in Pyote.

A "Recommendation to Terminate Employment" said of Mr. Hernandez: "While in a classroom storage closet, you gave [name deleted] some cake that you bought him for his birthday. ...You then made sexual overtures to him, turned out the lights, masturbated him and performed fellatio on him."

One young inmate, said the TYC findings, "reports that on numerous other occasions (18 times in total, according to the youth) ... you took him to an empty classroom storage closet or bathroom, or to your office, and performed fellatio on him."

'Behind locked doors'

Monroe Elms, former assistant principal of the school, told The News he found Mr. Hernandez "behind locked doors with students" more than once.

Mr. Elms said he informed Mr. Harrison, the superintendent. "I said, 'Mr. Harrison, I've caught John Paul behind locked doors several times with these kids. I want to report it to you,' " Mr. Elms recalled. "He said, 'What did you do about it?' He was throwing it back on me."

Employees also complained about Mr. Brookins, telling supervisors that he often took youth to his office after midnight and shut the door.

"Brookins would come get the kids in the middle of the night," said Christal Taylor, a former guard at one of the Pyote dorms. "He wouldn't bring them back until 1 in the morning.

"I said, 'Where are you taking them?' " Ms. Taylor told The News. "He'd say, 'That's none of your business. ... I'm the supervisor.' "

Other staffers made similar complaints regarding Mr. Brookins, the TYC administrative review says. The assistant superintendent "was reported to have been peering in dorm windows late at night ... He was also know to take youth riding to the ball field on a golf cart, after hours and alone."

Mr. Brookins began his TYC career at the San Saba State School. There, in 2001, he was disciplined after "photos of naked men and women with their genitalia exposed" were found on his state computer, the TYC review said.

"In hindsight, we should have fired Ray Brookins when they first found pornography on his computer," said TYC spokesman Savoy.

Instead, he was promoted to the West Texas State School in 2003. TYC executive director Harris said agency officials failed to check Mr. Brookins' personnel records when he was hired in Pyote.

The agency has since changed its promotions procedures to include the checking of personnel records, Mr. Harris said.

The TYC's administrative review said of Mr. Brookins' promotion: "In spite of the presence of indicators of risk of misconduct, a history of misconduct, widespread suspicion of misconduct and reports of unusual behavior, Mr. Brookins was placed in positions of great responsibility."

The review also found: "The youths victimized by Mr. Brookins and Mr. Hernandez were apparently influenced to remain silent by the control the two had over their length of stay and services that could be provided after release."

Superintendent Harrison "failed to report allegations of abuse," the review said. And it found that complaints "were explained away by Mr. Brookins when investigated, or the evidence of misconduct covered up."

For several months in 2004, Mr. Brookins served as acting superintendent while Mr. Harrison was on medical leave. Then, the report says, Mr. Brookins "began interfering with the youth complaint process."

An administrative assistant told investigators that Mr. Brookins "demanded and was given access to keys to the youth complaint mailbox."

Retired inspector general Chance, who has written a book on TYC, called Raped by the State, said cover-ups and the stifling of complaints are common within the agency. "It's widespread," he said, "and management knows about it."

TYC executive director Harris defended the agency. "TYC is a haven for committed, dedicated employees who work 12-hour shifts and put their lives on the line," he said.

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, questioned Mr. Harris about the Pyote investigation during a recent Senate committee hearing. Sen. Hinojosa has introduced a bill that would provide greater oversight of TYC.

His bill would allow the Texas Rangers to make unannounced visits to each TYC prison at least once a month. "We want the Texas Rangers to come in and do inspections and do reports of what they found," Sen. Hinojosa said.

His bill also would beef up the TYC's investigative force. "They have some real serious problems," he said.

Story courtesy of Topix.net and The Associated Press.