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National Guard called in to staff Texas Juvenile Justice facilities due to rising COVID-19 infection rates

Texas Army National Guard

The Texas National Guard has been assigned to youth detention facilities as a result of rising infection rates from COVID-19.

On Tuesday the state reported three dozen staff were out with COVID-19 and nearly 40 youths also tested positive, according to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. The number had jumped by more than one-third from the previous week as the hyper-virulent omicron variant washes across the U.S.

Twenty-five of those out with the coronavirus work at the state’s five secured detention facilities. TJJD has more than 1,400 employees across its halfway houses and detention complexes.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department requested help from emergency managers to keep staffing levels above their minimums at four of the five secure corrections sites: Gainesville State school, Ron Jackson Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility in Mart and Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg.

The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the conditions of Texas’ youth detention earlier this year. Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas filed a complaint with DOJ against the facilities the previous year over physical and sexual abuse, inadequate mental health care and assaults.

It said the roots of many of the systemic issues were in the high staff turnover and understaffing at the secure sites.

“Without appropriate supervision of youth, there is increased chaos inside the facilities,” read the complaint.

Deb Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a justice policy advocacy organization, said the pandemic has made a bad situation worse.

“They are typically unable to hire the staff that they need to ensure that the facilities are safe. It's been a problem for many years. And so this just exacerbates an underlying problem,” she said.

The Texas Military department has now assigned six members per campus per 12 hour shift, according to a TJJD spokesman. The guard began working at two of the sites Tuesday, and additional members will start at other facilities in coming days.

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

There is concern about how the guard will be used at the sites that house many traumatized and at-times violent youth. There is concern among justice advocates about the lack of training the guard have with this population.

“TJJD has really focused on ensuring that treatment for youth is trauma-informed and rehabilitative. They require training for their staff that is consistent with those principles. That's not the kind of training that a National Guardsman typically has,” said Fowler.

TJJD expects the guard to play a supporting role in the facilities. They will help with transportation, supply runs, meal service, medical assistance and bed checks.

“They will not be providing direct care to the youth, and in a situation in which a youth needs help or assistance, they will call or radio a TJJD staff member to assist,” said Brian Sweany communications director of TJJD.

This is the first time the Guard has been called into a youth detention facility in Texas he said, but he compared it to the Guards’ role at a hospital where they ensure the staff can focus on patients.

National Guardsmen are expected to stay through Jan. 9.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org