I discovered John Hubner’s new book, _Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth, during the same period that I was spending the bulk of my days on the eighteenth floor of Brooklyn’s Supreme Court. A cousin of my close friend had been murdered the previous December—shot twice from behind at close range—and we were watching the case against his alleged assailant proceed. Although the twenty-two-year-old on trial was far from intimidating—indeed, looked rather meek and bewildered—the men being tried in other court cases fit my stereotype of the hardened criminal: White, Black or Latino, they were all big, bulky creatures with permanent scowls; even when being sentenced to lengthy prison terms, they didn’t appear the least bit remorseful. These people, I thought to myself, look to be beyond help. Good thing they won’t be walking the streets anytime soon.
The specter of the incorrigible, violent criminal animates much of the debate in our country around criminal justice. Inevitably, it has seeped into our notions of juvenile justice as well. We hear tales of teenage “super-predators,” as if a dastardly scientist has been secretly conducting genetic engineering experiments, and are primed to see violent offenders—even kids—as more animal than human: impossible to reform, lost. And it is precisely this easy notion of violent criminal as irredeemable psychopath that Hubner, a longtime reporter with the San Jose Mercury News, forces us to rethink.
Reporting on juvenile justice issues, Hubner continued to hear stories about something special happening in, of all places, Texas. An aggressive treatment program was being implemented at the Giddings State School, located between Austin and Houston, which holds 400 violent offenders—adolescents who have committed murders and rapes, armed robberies and assaults. Each year, several dozen boys and girls at Giddings go through the Capital Offenders program, and if they graduate, though they might be serving sentences of twenty-five to forty years, they are paroled and released into the public.
Not surprisingly, virtually all of the adolescents have a long history of horrific abuse at the hands of family members. One five-year-old boy was chained to a table each morning by his uncle, and then unlocked each afternoon and beaten for having peed on the floor. A six-year-old girl was often too hung-over to make it to kindergarten; by eight she was inhaling gasoline and at the age of thirteen she had been raped and acquired a crack habit. The crimes that these children went on to commit are equally heinous. As Hubner recounts, in matter-of-fact fashion:
“When she was fourteen, one girl suffocated her two-year-old nephew and five-month-old niece. A youth raped a five-year old, and then gouged his eyes out so the little boy would not be able to identify him. A seventeen-year-old took a forty-year-old man into the woods, hit him over the head, doused him with gasoline, and set him on fire.”
It is a familiar story—the cycle of abuse—but it is also freshly revolting, especially considering the ages of the individuals subjected to and then subjecting abuse. Hubner writes in the introduction,
“Since Giddings gets the ‘worst of the worst,’ it seems logical to assume that a large percentage have full-blown antisocial personality disorders that no program, however intense, can touch.” It appears to be a common sense conclusion, much like the one I made in Brooklyn’s Supreme Court.
Fortunately, for the children and society in general, the conclusion is incorrect; in fact, most of the extremely troubled youth at Giddings are rehabilitated—and the facility has amassed a track record that puts other states to shame. The California Youth Authority, which offers practically no treatment for its charges, admits that 74 percent of parolees are rearrested within three years. For graduates of the Capital Offenders program in Texas, in contrast, three years after being released, only 10 percent have been rearrested for a violent offense.
Hubner is quick to point out that the Capital Offenders program is only the tip of a progressive rehabilitation iceberg. The Texas Youth Authority, overseen by two enlightened directors, has developed a treatment-oriented approach that insists even the worst offenders have the potential to transform themselves. By the time adolescents enter Capital Offenders, they have already spent several years at Giddings, under heavy supervision and psychological exploration. The heavy treatment culture and focus on rehabilitation in the TYA, of course, stands in sharp relief to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which Hubner reminds us is taken to boast about running a prison system without air-conditioning, and has executed one-third of all inmates in the US since 1977.
Not that there aren’t untouchables. Since the Capital Offenders program began in 1988, the three clinical directors that the facility has had estimate that 5 percent of the inmates were true psychopaths, completely unaffected by treatment. These individuals who cannot complete the Capital Offenders program are shipped to prisons, where they serve out their full terms. Still, that leaves 95 percent to work with—and it is this 95 percent that Giddings almost always turns into non-violent citizens. Youth facing long sentences can instead spend several years at Giddings and be released into society, where they by and large do not reoffend.
To understand how this is possible, one must dive into the Capital Offenders program.
The program is relatively straightforward, divided into two phases, and lasts between six and nine months. Throughout, students (they are not called inmates at Giddings) are continuously drilled about their “thinking errors”—deceiving, avoiding, blaming, etc.—and forced to confront the cognitive habits that got them where they are today. No more than eighteen students are in each Capital Offenders group, and they meet most days of the week for intense, sometimes combative, group therapy.
During the first phase, Life Stories, students share their own histories of being abused—of what the world has done to them. But if delving into past abuse helps reveal why the youth have acted violently, it by no means condones the behavior. The second phase, Crime Stories, is about what they have done to the world, and here they must learn to take full responsibility for the harm they have inflicted, the crimes they have committed. They are shown the crime-scene photos and autopsy reports of their victims. They write letters to the parents of the children they have murdered, and participate in “victim impact panels,” where parents that have lost a child to violence speak to them about how their lives were shattered.
Hubner follows a group of boys and a group of girls (at Giddings there are approximately 325 males and 65 females)—delving most deeply into the life of seventeen-year-old “Ronnie” (a pseudonym). Ronnie, whose father is white and mother Latina, was left at his grandparents when he was six. Abuse was generations deep: Ronnie’s mother was regularly raped by her father, a reverend, and she was eventually placed in a state home with her little sister.
When Ronnie’s parents separated, his mother took him and his younger brother to live with this aunt. There his mother met Jimmie—also abusive and a drug dealer—and quickly became a crack addict; from that point on, she was rarely around. When he was five, Ronnie’s aunt caught him playing in the flowerbed, and beat him with a rope and stake, then submerged him in a tub full of scalding water. That same year his mother brought him to a drug party where he watched a man stumble into the living room with his intestines hanging out, a victim of a knifing. Years of abuse by the aunt continued, and Ronnie was soon violently attacking his younger brother in return. At the age of eleven Ronnie found Jimmie’s gun and held in to his brother’s head and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He put the gun to his head and was about to pull the trigger again when Jimmie came up from behind and grabbed the weapon, pointed it to the ceiling, and fired a bullet.
By thirteen, Ronnie was dealing drugs for Jimmie, smoking PCP himself, and breaking into people’s homes. Early one morning he and several other boys disturbed two senior citizens during a burglary. After stripping the place, they took the couple to a hotel, where they spent the evening doing drugs and waiting for the banks to open. The next morning, Ronnie drove the man to the bank, but when they stopped for gas he escaped. Had he not, Ronnie admits he would have killed him.
Throughout the book, the most dramatic sessions occur when the group of boys and girls are asked to role-play the major events of their lives. Ronnie watches as the group recreates a scene where his aunt beats him mercilessly, then another where his mother takes him to a birthday party and abandons him. During the role-plays of his crime story, Ronnie plays himself, lunging after his younger brother with an eraser that stands in for a knife. During this episode he loses control and actually begins to chase in earnest the boy playing the role of his younger brother, and must be restrained by one of the therapists. He eventually collapses on the ground, screaming “Fuck, man, I fucked up! I fucked up again!”
Invariably, the role-plays end up with at least a few kids shaking and the counselors tired; their intensity eventually leaves even the reader drained. Then the group sits down and tries to sort through the feelings that have emerged, feelings that the kids have been able to avoid up to that point in their lives. If it is cathartic, it is also reflective: the point is not just to “release” tension and pent-up aggression, but to learn from the behavior, to label and look at it with clear, concentrated eyes, and then correct it.
When he was released, Ronnie found a job at a nursing home, where he is now the head of the custodial crew, supervising eleven people. He has made amends with the aunt that beat him (“I’m at peace with it”) and his father that abandoned him (“He’s a hard man to talk about anything emotional…I’m going to accept him for what he is”). Of his younger brother, who he nearly killed: “I really hurt him a lot. I was messed up. Now, we talk and do things together. He tells me, ‘You’re a changed man. Now, you’re my brother.’” Most of the other adolescents that Hubner follows have similarly successful stories. A few, of course, are not so fortunate, and are either in prison or back on the street, as in the case of one girl who’s been working as a prostitute.
Early in the book, Hubner quotes a former State School superintendent, Stan DeGerolami, on the misconceptions the public has about prison:
The harsh prisons that tough-on-crime types want are actually the easiest places to do time. Putting kids in a prison, locking them away in a cell, that is easy time. All they have to do is sit there and feel sorry for themselves and convince themselves that they have been wronged.
Giddings looks nice on the outside. Inside, it is the toughest prison in Texas. Kids do hard time here. They have to face themselves. They have to deal with the events that put them here. They have to examine what they did and take responsibility for it. Kids who go through that do not go out and reoffend. That needs to be screamed out loud: they do not reoffend.
Last Chance in Texas reminds us that most violent criminals will one day be released. In Brooklyn, the twenty-two-year-old who killed my friend’s cousin was found guilty of 2nd degree murder, and will be serving at least fifteen years behind bars. He took an innocent life; he is being punished. But one wonders what kind of person will join our civilized society in 2020—what kind of rehabilitation he might or might not have found behind bars.
Gabriel Thompson’s “When Even the Minimum Wage Is a Distant Dream” (Rail, Dec. 04/Jan. 05) recently won an IPPIE Award from the Independent Press Association-NY for best story about immigrant issues. He can be contacted through his website, www.wherethesilenceis.org.