“Ray Brookins worked for the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), the state’s juvenile detention agency. In October 2003, he was hired as head of security at the West Texas State School in Pyote. Like most TYC facilities, it’s a remote place. The land is flat to the horizon, scattered with slowly bobbing oil derricks, and always windy. It’s a long way from the families of most kids confined there, who tend to be urban and poor; a long way from any social services, or even the police. It must have seemed perfect to Brookins—and also to John Paul Hernandez, who was hired as the school’s principal around the same time. Almost immediately, Brookins started pulling students out of their dorms at night, long after curfew, and bringing them to the administration building. When asked why, he said it was for cleaning.
In fact, according to official charges, for sixteen months Brookins and Hernandez molested the children in their care: in offices and conference rooms, in dorms and darkened broom closets and, at night, out in the desert. The boys tried to tell members of the staff they trusted; they also tried, both by letter and through the school’s grievance system, to tell TYC officials in Austin. They did so knowing that they might be retaliated against physically, and worse, knowing that if Brookins caught them complaining he could and would extend their confinement, and keep on abusing them. They did so because they were desperate. But they were ignored by the authorities who should have intervened: both those running the school and those running the Texas Youth Commission. Nor did other officials of the TYC who were informed by school staff about molestation take action.
Finally, in late February 2005, a few of the boys approached a volunteer math tutor named Marc Slattery. Something “icky” was going on, they said. Slattery knew it would be futile to go to school authorities—his parents, also volunteers, had previously told the superintendent of their own suspicions, and were “brow beat” for making allegations without proof —so the next morning he called the Texas Rangers. A sergeant named Brian Burzynski made the ninety-minute drive from his office in Fort Stockton that afternoon. “I saw kids with fear in their eyes,” he testified later, “kids who knew they were trapped in an institution where the system would not respond to their cries for help.”
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“The Rangers forwarded Burzynski’s report to Randall Reynolds, the local district attorney, but he did nothing. Even though it’s a crime in all fifty states for corrections staff to have sex with inmates of any age, prosecutors rarely bring charges in such cases. For a time, from the TYC’s perspective, the problem seemed to go away. The agency suspended Lemuel “Chip” Harrison, the superintendent of the school, for ninety days after concluding its investigation—he had ignored complaints about Brookins and Hernandez from many members of the staff—but then it promoted him, making him director of juvenile corrections. Brookins found a job at a hotel in Austin, and Hernandez, astonishingly, became principal of a charter school in Midland.
Rumors have a way of spreading, though, however slowly. Eventually some reporters started digging, and on February 16, 2007, Nate Blakeslee broke the story in The Texas Observer. Doug Swanson followed three days later in The Dallas Morning News, starting an extraordinary run of investigative reporting in that paper: forty articles on abuse and mismanagement in the TYC by the end of March 2007, and to date more than seventy. Pyote was only the beginning. The TYC’s culture was thoroughly corrupt: rot had spread to all thirteen of its facilities.
Since January 2000, it turned out, juvenile inmates had filed more than 750 complaints of sexual misconduct by staff. Even that number was generally thought to underrepresent the true extent of such abuse, because most children were too afraid to report it: TYC staff commonly had their favorite inmates beat up those who complained. And even when they did file grievances, the kids knew it was unlikely to do them much good. Reports were frequently sabotaged, evidence routinely destroyed.
In the same six-year period, ninety-two TYC staff had been disciplined or fired for sexual contact with inmates, which can be a felony. (One wonders just how blatant they must have been.) But again, as children’s advocate Isela Gutierrez put it, “local prosecutors don’t consider these kids to be their constituents.” Although five of the ninety-two were “convicted of lesser charges related to sexual misconduct,” all received probation or had their cases deferred. Not one agency employee in those six years was sent to prison for sexually abusing a confined child. And despite fierce public outrage at the scandal, neither Brookins nor Hernandez has yet faced trial. In the face of overwhelming evidence, but with recent history making their convictions unlikely, both claim innocence.”