Texas teens embark on an idealistic quest to close the state’s last five juvenile prisons.

Filled with adrenaline, determination and optimism, a group of teenagers gathered outside the State Capitol last week, ready to take their first steps into the underbelly of Texas politics.

Most were under the iconic Rose Dome for school field trips only. But on the first day of the Texas legislative session, about a dozen high school students and recent graduates were eager to take on a more active role: to demand their elected representatives deal with the ongoing crisis in the state’s juvenile prisons.

Last year, The Texas Tribune reported on severe prison staffing shortages that typically left children in cells alone until 11 p.m., forcing them to use water bottles and food trays as toilets. Nearly half of the nearly 600 children in prisons were on the lookout for suicide.

In response, Austin teenagers joined a local criminal justice reform group to create a new advocacy campaign. A coalition called Finish the 5 plans to spend the next five months at the State Capitol, urging lawmakers to close the five remaining juvenile detention centers in Texas.

“If we youth are not in solidarity with our fellow youth who are being abused by the state, then who will stand up for them?” Krupali Kumar, the 19-year-old co-founder of the Austin Youth Liberation Movement, yelled into a microphone last Tuesday at the South Gate of the Capitol.

The prisons of the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice have been plagued by scandals of sexual assault, physical abuse and other forms of abuse for decades. But they have also changed significantly since similar crises in the past.

Following a sexual assault scandal in 2007, the agency was renamed and restructured to merge with local juvenile justice systems. The new focus was to keep children in distress closer to home under the supervision of the county, mostly through probation or diversion programs. After the policy change and the reduction in the number of juvenile arrests, far fewer children were sent to state prisons, and the number of juvenile prisons was reduced from 13 to the remaining five, located mainly in rural areas.

However, government officials have previously dismissed ideas to close more because the hundreds of young people still there are often the hardest to manage and care for, often due to aggressive behavior, severe mental health needs, or both.

The Finish the 5 campaign, led by the Youth and Social Justice Advocacy Group of the Texas Center for Justice and Justice, proposes phasing out five prisons by 2027. and implement better intervention and prevention programs to keep children out of cages in the first place.

Sergio Flores


Texas Tribune

First, members of the Finish Five Coalition head to legislators’ offices on the first day of the legislative session. One last thing: the activists armed themselves with analytical bulletins to distribute to interested passers-by and legislators’ aides.

While closing all juvenile prisons would be a game-changer, the young activists hope that the dire conditions will encourage significant reforms like the one that followed the 2007 scandal. The big changes are especially relevant as the TJJD is undergoing a decade-long review this year to allow lawmakers to decide whether and how to continue.

So far, the agency’s response to the crisis has mostly been an emergency pay raise and increased payroll funding to bring in new hires and help retain some of the fleeing workforce.

During the busy opening day of the Capitol, young activists chanted into megaphones, handed out fliers to curious passers-by and crowded into lawmakers’ offices to nervously push their campaign forward. While Kumar, a member of the debate camp, spoke confidently into a microphone and spoke with ease to passing political party members, others focused on their printed speeches and spoke in a low voice.

“I’m 16, oh wait, no, I just turned 17,” Mia Leger giggled, her long thin braids falling down her back. Raised in public housing, Léger joined the coalition after seeing many of her peers die or go to jail. She said children from low-income families had no other options.

In trembling or confident voices, teenagers repeated the same thing: the confidence that they could make real changes in this space, even if they could not get everything they were looking for.

“To be honest, this makes me very nervous, but also very excited,” said Amani Ahmad, an 18-year-old college freshman, laughing at her nerves about lobbying lawmakers and testifying at future committee hearings.

“It seems like we really have a path to people who are in charge, and it seems to be much more powerful than just an organization from the outside,” she added, taking part in protests with Kumar on other social justice causes.

Elle Johnson, whose father was in juvenile detention in Texas and was recently sent to adult prison, echoed the idea.

    First, unable to take seats in the House's gallery on the opening day of the Legislative Assembly, teenagers gather in the committee room to watch the session begin.  Last: El Johnson talks about his experience with the criminal justice system in the outer rotunda of the Texas Capitol.

Sergio Flores


Texas Tribune

First, unable to take seats in the House’s gallery on the opening day of the Legislative Assembly, teenagers gather in the committee room to watch the session begin. Last: El Johnson talks about his experience with the criminal justice system in the outer rotunda of the Texas Capitol.

“I am sure that even if we do not close [the prisons]we will change them. And this is enough for now,” said the 18-year-old.

Wearing a campaign T-shirt and braiding her pigtails, Johnson said she joined the movement to break the vicious circle of imprisonment for herself and for her 4-year-old brother, who will grow up black in a world “so cruel to people of color and people of color in general.”

“Knowing that I can help create a system that will take care of him and not punish him was really motivating,” she said.

On Tuesday, other young people with no personal ties to the criminal justice system joined the fight, including 17-year-old Eden Szymanek. With glitter eyeshadow and a hot pink fanny pack, the high school student said she found social justice watching crime shows with her mom and hoped to work on the Innocence Project after college.

“Two years ago, I had no idea there were organizations like the Austin Youth Liberation Movement or TCJE, or there were five juvenile detention centers in Texas,” Szymanek said into a microphone at the Capitol gate. “After realizing how ignorant I was about this topic, I sat down and did some research and got carried away with the movement. I just couldn’t get over the fact that kids my age are in cells without seeing daylight for 23 hours, or that they were kids my age using water bottles and food trays to go to the bathroom.”

No bill has yet been filed to close juvenile prisons, but the Finish the 5 campaign is in talks with Democratic Party representatives James Talarico and Jarvis Johnson, according to TCJE policy and advocacy director Alicia Castillo. Talarico said the bill would be filed, but the details had yet to be worked out.

Youth is focused. After opening day at the Capitol, they plan to continue talking with lawmakers and other stakeholders behind the scenes, as well as publicly testify when any related bills are introduced to legislative committees.

On Tuesday, entering the Capitol, Johnson radiated positivity. She felt the power not only of her mission for her brother and many like him, but also for her younger peers, whom she could inspire to take the first place in their government.

    Teenagers are crowding into the office of Rep. James Talarico to take the first step towards closing juvenile prisons.

Sergio Flores


Texas Tribune

Teenagers are crowding into the office of Rep. James Talarico to take the first step towards closing juvenile prisons.

When I was here on a school field trip, there really were protests outside, she mused, her braids bouncing along with her steps. “I didn’t know you could do it. And it was so impressive.”

She hoped that the children would now be able to see her in her defense, that she could create a similar experience for them.

“It triggers a thought process like, ‘Wow, we can change something,'” she said. Especially since we are like them.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more visit KERA.

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