Out of Mind, Out of Sight

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There are seven staff psychologists and three part-time psychiatrists who rotate being on campus every day but Sunday. They need more staff members, says the superintendent, Dr. Don Brantley. Intensive treatment here costs $194.51 a day for severely emotionally disturbed kids and $280.02 a day for kids in the 41-bed stabilization unit--compared with the average $102.19 a day for general offenders at other TYC institutions.

Brantley has a doctorate in psychology and talks about being more flexible when dealing with kids classified as "emotionally disturbed." Most incarcerated adolescents are given a set structure and clearly defined, heavily enforced rules, but he says that doesn't work with mentally ill kids. "We need to give them a little leeway," he says. These children, he says, need to be protected. "It can be very difficult for them if we don't recognize that this is a kid that can't compete."

On the other hand, he talks about kids who think they will be coddled at Corsicana so they lie to psychiatrists about voices they don't hear. "There's payoffs for earning a mental health diagnosis," Brantley says. "Some kids outright fake it."

He cites teens who halfheartedly hang themselves when a guard is coming, or tie a noose around their neck, then rap on the door to make sure they don't die. "They don't have the wherewithal or the courage," Brantley says. "Over time, you can see how gamy it is."

A girl on Corsicana's main campus set a record for trying to kill herself this year by tying 100 things around her neck. Brantley didn't move her to the stabilization unit because, he says, her behavior was clearly manipulative. "She's choosing to do this; it's her way of having power or control," he says. "She'd find this so comfortable we wouldn't be able to get her back out."

Inside the stabilization unit girls wearing orange jumpsuits, white socks and flip-flops sit at desks and glare at one another. "These kids would be in a state hospital if they weren't in TYC," Brantley says. Mattresses and blankets are removed from the cells each morning, leaving solid blue blocks bolted to the floor. The window on the bathroom door has been covered, but a peephole was drilled because girls have a tendency to tie bras and panties around their necks, Brantley says.

"They can be really resourceful," adds the assistant superintendent, Lynda Smith.

Down the dusty road is the security unit where youths with severe behavior problems, versus emotional issues, come to "cool off" anywhere from 24 hours to 90 days. "Some kids, you need to separate them out," Brantley says. "They just can't function."

The security unit is usually filled with mostly girls. "They tend to be more emotional and take a little longer to calm down," Brantley says. The observation rooms have larger windows than standard cells so guards can make sure kids don't try to drown themselves in the toilet or stuff clothes down the commode to flood the room.

Outside the administrative building, girls in blue shorts play softball, boys shoot hoops, and a gentle breeze blows through the gazebo.

"Frankly," Brantley says, "a lot of kids don't want to leave. They deliberately won't get better because they don't want to leave. They sabotage their chance for release."

"Jamal," a lanky boy from southeast Houston, has been at Crockett for 28 months. He lived with his grandmother, a retired nurse, his mother, an elementary school cafeteria cook, and his uncles, both police officers. "They were at work most of the time," he says.

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 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.

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Wendy Grossman