Out of Mind, Out of Sight

For a growing number of Texas kids with mental illnesses, the only place to get help is behind bars.

When he was 12, Jamal started hanging out with the boys in the neighborhood playing football, basketball and smoking dope. Soon he was selling marijuana and crack.

He was first arrested for "testing" his .25-caliber gun by firing it out the window of a moving car. Buying another gun, he violated his probation and was sent to boot camp; he was rearrested for both dealing and making crack.

Jamal insists that he's not certified as emotionally disturbed. "I'm stable," he says. "I'm just waiting to go home." He says it's "nerve-racking" to live in a dorm filled with crazy kids, and he tries not to have "problem people" in his room. He talks about how he wants to go to Texas Southern University and someday own a McDonald's franchise.

The Corsicana Residential Treatment Center is one of two facilities for mentally ill kids run by the Texas Youth Commission.
Wendy Grossman
The Corsicana Residential Treatment Center is one of two facilities for mentally ill kids run by the Texas Youth Commission.


Part of our three-part series "Make 'em Pay: Juvenile Justice in Texas"

The staff psychologist insists that Jamal is clinically depressed and has been for a long time. He's better than he used to be--he doesn't need medication anymore--but the therapist says Jamal is still classified as disturbed because he continues to make "thinking errors" and has difficulty with reality.

Past the Trinity River, Rattlesnake Ranch and acres of cows, corn and cotton sits the Crockett State School. Across the street is Crockett High School; the only obvious difference between the brick buildings is that the TYC institution is surrounded by a 12-foot chain-link fence.

The green-roofed buildings sit on a gentle hill covered in pine and pear trees; over-ripe fruit litters the dry grass. Dorms are named "New Hope," "Courage," "Challenge," "Success," "Opportunity," "Discovery" and "Freedom." Coils of barbed wire top the schoolhouse, so boys won't have to be chased off the roof like Wiffle balls.

In the 1950s the school was an orphanage for unwanted African-American girls. "People could drop their kids off," says the chaplain, Bill Phillips. "Like abandoning a puppy." TYC started sending mentally ill kids here about five years ago because Corsicana was overflowing, says Brantley, who was then the director of clinical services at Crockett. Brantley says Crockett's single-bedroom dormitories with added privacy are conducive to treatment. "To function well in a setting like that, you have to have a certain amount of psychological stamina because you can't get away from people," Brantley says. "You have to have really good boundaries. Sometimes just walls and doors help."

Crockett houses 264 male juvenile delinquents, and more than half are from Houston. About 145 beds are reserved for kids classified as emotionally disturbed; each costs about $157 per day. "We run over always," says Blu Nicholson, the assistant superintendent and the former program administrator at Corsicana. There are also 24 beds for offenders with chemical dependencies, and the remaining 96 spots are reserved for the "general offender" population.

The emotionally disturbed kids and the general offenders are treated much the same, with 16-hour structured schedules filled with counseling and resocialization skills. Boys sleep in the same red metal bunks bolted to the floor and are put in the same sterile solitary cells if they misbehave. The main differences are that disturbed teens often have their own rooms, carpeted floors instead of tile, and they can't be pepper-sprayed. Caseworkers have half the workload with the mentally ill offenders, and instead of being immediately punished for acting out, kids are talked to and disciplined according to their individual diagnosis. "If it's part of their disorder that they're highly aggressive, then the kid can't be reprimanded for being highly aggressive," says the superintendent, Don Freeman. "It's a lot of paperwork. These kids require so much; they're so needy."

Outside, a boy in an orange jumpsuit is screaming, "Fuck you! Get your fucking handcuffs off me!" A guard grabs the boy's shoulders and slams him hard against the white transport van. As the boy screams, the guide gently steers the tour in the opposite direction, talks about how the spacious lawn is often filled with boys tossing footballs and points out the unfinished agility course--tires, pull-up bars and poles. The fire marshal condemned the indoor swimming pool five years ago, the library shelves are only half full with mostly outdated books, and the scoreboard in the gym is broken. At the basketball tournament last week, the chaplain kept score on butcher paper. "I was just glad the fountain worked," he says.

When she stole the Mustang, Becky says, she was planning to get locked up. She didn't like living with an overbearing alcoholic mother who was rarely home and wouldn't let her have friends over, so Becky ran away. Life on the streets was worse. She heard that kids who were arrested were treated the way she thought teens were supposed to be treated--they were given food and clothes and attention.

"I was living through misery," Becky says. "I didn't have what I needed. I didn't have people there every day. I was getting nowhere."

With nowhere to go, many mentally ill kids do what Becky did, committing progressively worse crimes, getting angrier and sicker until someone notices and helps them.

"They go from bad to worse," says Schnapp, chairman of the Mental Health Needs Council of Houston. "The end result of not serving these kids is literally destroyed lives and oftentimes expensive, unproductive prison sentences. We can trace that back to the fact that we neglected them--we neglected them when they really needed help when they were juveniles and when they were younger."

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