Sunday, April 22, 2007
State leaders ask if the prisons are really the best places for such juveniles.
By LISA SANDBERG
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Texas Youth Commission staff have to watch for more than just poor behavior when looking after Zachariah Tarver — they have to ensure he's not hanging himself, slicing his veins, writing on the walls with his blood or drinking cleaning fluid.
It's not easy. Tarver has done these things before, threatening or attempting suicide at least a half-dozen times in the 10 days after he was plucked from a psychiatric hospital and sent to TYC late last year, agency records indicate.
The youth, now 18 and confined to TYC's Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, has spent virtually every day since his arrival on suicide watch. He hallucinates, and he responds to questions from doctors with a smile, no matter what is asked of him, according to the records, which were provided by his family.
Psychiatrists hired by TYC diagnosed him with major depression, bipolar and schizoaffective disorders and drug dependence.
Now, as state leaders work to overhaul TYC, many are asking the question: Are juvenile prisons the best settings for mentally ill youths like Tarver?
He had two brushes with the law, including taking his father's car without permission, before being sentenced to TYC last year for driving without a license and violating curfew.
"I personally don't think that the mentally ill should be treated like law violators if their medical problems are causing the behavior," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who co-chairs the joint legislative committee investigating the myriad problems that beset the agency.
Whitmire said confining juveniles who are mentally ill should be a last resort.
In the wake of a scandal involving reported sexual or physical abuse of inmates by guards at several TYC facilities, lawmakers are promising to substantially reduce the system's offender population and make it a place for seriously delinquent youths whose behaviors aren't caused by illnesses.
But they're also grappling with issues of public safety since some mentally ill inmates have committed violent offenses.
A bill making its way through the Legislature would keep those with misdemeanor convictions out of the TYC system and would provide local communities more resources to treat most mentally disturbed youths in community-based settings closer to home.
The task is daunting, given the number of youths with mental health issues who wind up in TYC.
The agency decided mental health services were required for nearly 38 percent of the 2,700 youths it received in 2005.
Leaving in worse condition
Until she resigned under pressure last week, Corrine Alvarez-Sanders, TYC's assistant deputy executive director for rehabilitative services, had worked with young inmates for 15 years and said too many who are mentally ill don't get appropriate treatment and leave in worse condition than when they arrived.
Secured lockups are appropriate for some mentally ill offenders with violent tendencies, but every one of those would be better served in smaller residential treatment centers, she said.
"I don't want to say that all of our facilities are producing outcomes that are worse. But what's clear to us is the interventions don't match the specialized needs that are present," Alvarez-Sanders said.
All too often, poorly trained staff extend the TYC terms of mentally ill inmates, confusing a mental health issue with a bad attitude or anti-social behavior, she said.
She's seen those with borderline intelligence disciplined for failing to complete written assignments they were incapable of doing.
"I'm not going to minimize the fact that we have kids in our care that are confined for excessive lengths of time," she said.
Juveniles entering TYC spend several weeks at the Marlin Orientation and Assessment Unit, 25 miles east of Waco, undergoing a battery of psychological, emotional, vocational and chemical dependency tests.
Those deemed suffering from severe mental disorders are assigned to either the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center or the Crockett State School, which have specialized psychiatric care, higher staff-to-offender ratios and rehabilitative programs tailored to their needs, Alverez-Sanders said.
But, clearly, not everyone who needs mental health services gets them.
Marquieth Jackson has spent 3 1/2 years at TYC but only one month at Corsicana, where no one could handle him, said the attorney representing his Houston family. Jackson was sent to a facility in Beaumont that specializes in drug treatment.
No one could dispute that Jackson suffered from severe emotional and behavioral problems when he was sent to TYC at 12 for violating probation by breaking a window, one of his numerous encounters with police.
Before he ever stepped foot in TYC, he'd been diagnosed as being bipolar and depressed, with schizoaffective and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, according to TYC records provided by his mother, Tarsha.
By age 4, he'd been kicked out of day care for aggressive behavior. At 10, he assaulted a teacher.
He was committed twice to psychiatric hospitals and received intensive counseling from the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.
Incapable of following rules
Tarsha Jackson said her son has received virtually no mental health treatment or medicine since arriving at TYC. (The agency cannot discuss specific cases.)
Like most offenders, Marquieth came into the system with a nine-month minimum sentence. His mother said he's too mentally ill to follow TYC rules. "I tell them, 'You've had him since he was 12. If he hasn't been able to work your program in 42 months, what are you going to do? Keep him until he's 42?' "
In a sign that things may indeed be changing, Tarsha Jackson received word recently that her son, who's now 15, would soon be discharged on a mental health release.
She's relieved but insists she's realistic about the difficulties ahead.
"We're going from (the unit) to (a psychiatric) hospital. No pit stops," Jackson said.
Zachariah Tarver's mother, Terri Lovelace, is still waiting to hear whether her son soon will be released.
Texas Juvenile Probation Commission statistics indicate 38 percent of TYC inmates arriving in 2005 suffered from mental health disorders, although the agency indicated the number could be as high as 50 percent. Of those deemed mentally impaired by the agency:
• 11 percent: Confined for nonviolent misdemeanors;
• 17 percent: Confined for violent felonies;
• 20 percent: Confined for nonviolent felonies, such as car theft or burglary;
• 3 percent: Confined for violent misdemeanors, such as noninjury assault