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Texas youth
prisons under fire for abuse

Texas youth
prisons under fire for abuse

State awmakers outraged by allegations of sexual abuse of juvenile inmates and a cover-up within the Texas Youth Commission promised to hold officials accountable and hinted they might try to take over the troubled agency.

''We're going to get to the bottom of this,'' said Sen. John Whitmire, the Democratic chairman of the state senate's criminal justice committee. ''There are no untouchables. We will not rest until this agency is shaken up from top to bottom.''

Lawmakers held an emotional hearing Tuesday in which they questioned agency staff about investigations that found high-ranking officials at the West Texas State School in Pyote had repeated sexual contact with inmates.

The Texas Youth Commission houses offenders ages 10 to 21 who are considered the most dangerous, incorrigible, or chronic. The West Texas State School at the heart of the controversy houses 250 male inmates.

An internal investigation found that many prison staff members had complained about the abuse to their supervisors and to officials in Austin, but for more than a year, no one in charge did anything to stop it.

A Texas Rangers investigation in 2005 found that the prison's assistant superintendent and the school's principal had repeated sexual contact with inmates. Neither investigation has resulted in criminal charges, though Whitmire said a special prosecutor is on the case. The officials allegedly involved resigned in 2005.

Before the hearing, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, called the allegations ''awful.''

''We can't have criminals and predators manning our prisons,'' Dewhurst said.

The senate panel is considering legislation that would create an independent investigator and increase youth corrections staff and training. It also would prevent the agency from housing inmates as young as 11 with inmates in their late teens and early 20s.

The agency's former executive director, Dwight Harris, resigned last week, leaving its general counsel, Neil Nichols, to assume his job and address lawmakers. ''There's no question we missed a lot of keys,'' Nichols said.

Lawmakers lashed out at him for not bringing the reports to their attention when no action was taken.

''The decision to prosecute is not ours to make,'' Nichols said.

That remark drew looks of disgust from senators, who held up copies of time lines and report summaries detailing the problems investigators found.

''Do you know how pitiful you sound?'' Whitmire asked. (AP)

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