Among the graduates in late July was 20-year-old Bill Everett, who had been convicted of armed robbery in Palo Pinto County when he was 17. Everything had changed, he'd said, since the day he cruised into that bank with an older buddy in Mingus, population 56, where "they all knew I was a knucklehead." Walking down the street a few hours later, high on methamphetamines, Everett knew he'd made the biggest mistake of his life.
None of that mattered in court, where he stood trial as an adult--bypassing the juvenile system--and plea-bargained for an eight-year sentence. Like most younger male TDCJ inmates, he got sent to the Clemens Unit and had a chance to participate in the Youthful Offender Program. A year later, he says he's obtained his GED, set some goals for life and learned to control the overwhelming anger that once defined him.
"It's been a life-changing experience," Everett says. "Not all of it's been pretty. Not all of it's been fun. When the program first started, I thought I could manipulate my way through the system and everything would be peaches and cream."
Not with Coates. A Baptist minister's wife who was raised in a rural village outside Texarkana, Coates enforces an old-fashioned code of decorum and decency. The young men must shake a visitor's hand firmly. They must speak up, not mumble, and practice the virtues of honesty and humility.
"We try to catch them doing something good, and we praise them," Coates says. "The praise is kind of infectious--they want more and more."
Now Everett, who's been denied parole once, is looking ahead to getting out. He recently reflected on his experiences in the program, which uses the considerable force of peer pressure to push young offenders onto the straight and narrow. One aspect of the curriculum is sessions in which one youth confronts another in front of the entire group of 75. These experiences teach kids to "confront people appropriately," Coates says, instead of "just cussing somebody out or shooting them."
"They put me in front of the whole community and made me look like a chump, and I have to humble myself and accept it," Everett says. "It's changed me from the inside out."
Dave Moffett, a Houston man serving a five-year sentence for a robbery he committed at 17, took another tack on attaining success in the program. When he first arrived, Coates says, "He had one emotion, and it was mad." He was smart enough to realize, though, that he'd have to cooperate on some level to survive. "They got to telling me to fake it till I made it," Moffett says of his fellow inmates. "After I got to faking it so much, it got to be a part of me."
Moffett, Everett and the 12 other graduates will become the gauge of the Youthful Offender Program's success, Coates says.
"It's so rewarding with these kids; you see such a change in them," she says. But only when they're released into the real world, immersed in the temptations that got them here in the first place, can the program's real success be measured.
In general, housing youths in an adult prison costs less than keeping them in juvenile facilities. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice charges taxpayers about $40 a day to keep a prisoner, compared with TYC's average of $129 per day.
That extra money doesn't mean young criminals have it easy.
During his four months in his own apartment, Kendrick Carson remembers how he and his roommate, another TYC alumnus, would tease each other about what their friends still in state custody were doing. Usually it would be something unpleasant--exercises, school, mowing lawns, kitchen work. "We'd be like, 'Man, let's get out and enjoy our freedom,'" Carson says.
With the reforms and increased funding came a new, harsher environment. In the pre-reform days, Gaither recalls, juvenile detention "looked better than a good junior college." Delinquents could wear their street clothes. They had their own rooms, some with televisions. Their day rooms had video games and pinball machines.
The post-reform TYC projects had an entirely different image.
Under the reforms, TYC is supposed to be getting the worst of the worst--short of those youths certified as adults and sent directly to adult prison. Only when a youth uses a deadly weapon or causes serious bodily injury, for instance, do the sanction guidelines call for a sentence with TYC. Otherwise, the guidelines call for the counties to place the youth in a secure residential facility.
To rehabilitate the toughest, TYC has gotten much more money. The funding demands at the agency have accelerated at a rapid pace, with the average cost per day rising 17 percent between 1998 and 2000.