AUSTIN (AP) — The worst part was in his mind.
"When you're in a room by yourself, you're not doing nothing," said Pete Garanzuay, 18, recalling 36 hours spent locked in solitary confinement at a juvenile detention center in Travis County. "Thinking about the bad things in life over and over again, just replaying it in your head."
Across the state, records show, juvenile detention centers locked young offenders in solitary confinement more than 35,000 times last year. The data, obtained by a civil rights group called the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, came from reports submitted by county detention centers to the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice. The numbers include "room confinements" of any duration.
The reasons for long "disciplinary seclusions," according to policy documents, include sexual misconduct or attempting to escape. But in some counties, "major offenses" leading to confinements of 24 hours or more also included "failure to attend school," ''disrupting the group" and "horseplay."
"You'll see a kid with his face pressed up against a small window," said Benet Magnuson, a lawyer for the coalition. "Trying to see what's going on in the outside world."
State officials describe the practice as an important disciplinary tool.
"When a youth is being disruptive or is assaulting somebody or has created a situation that is not safe, it's important to have a place to put the youth while they calm down," said Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. "Sometimes youth will even self-refer themselves to security because they feel an anger rising up."
A hearing on a bill that would restrict the use of solitary confinement is scheduled in the Texas Legislature on Tuesday.
Last year, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union issued a critical report focusing on the use of solitary confinement for adolescents incarcerated in prisons on adult criminal charges.
But in Texas, records show, solitary confinement is being used for juveniles held for a wider range of lesser offenses — those housed in detention centers reserved for children.
Unlike adult prisons, the juvenile system is largely removed from public scrutiny. Children can be held for their own protection or for public safety. They cannot petition for bail, and their case and disciplinary records are sealed.
"If a kid remains locked up in a cell for 24 hours a day, we're actually probably not going to hear about it." said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center, a national children's advocacy organization.
Last year, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a statement concluding that solitary confinement of juveniles could lead to depression, anxiety and even psychosis. "The majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement," the group wrote.
After a sexual abuse scandal in the state juvenile system in 2007, Texas shifted much responsibility for wayward youth to the county detention centers. The state provides oversight. Last year, 72,374 children were referred to county probation departments, state records show.
Some in the centers face serious criminal charges. Others enter for truancy, running away from home or liquor violations.
In theory, lawmakers have said, using the county centers allows young offenders to stay closer to their families, with better access to mental health treatment. In practice, though, state officials say they have little control over the disciplinary practices in county facilities.
"This is a local controlled issue in many ways," said Michael Griffiths, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Detention centers are required to check on juveniles in solitary confinement four times an hour, Griffiths said. But, he added, "local flexibility is important."
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat from San Antonio, has filed a bill that would limit disciplinary seclusions except in the case of an assault or an escape attempt.
"Four hours is enough," Van de Putte said. "If not, you totally break a child, and they never get better."
At the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center in Travis County, Darryl Beatty, the deputy chief probation officer, said officers conduct checks every 15 minutes, and that juveniles are held in solitary "room confinement" no longer than six hours before receiving a disciplinary hearing. Findings of major violations such as fighting can lead to longer "disciplinary seclusions."
Pete Garanzuay said he first entered the Gardner Betts detention center five years ago, at age 13. By that time, state records show, his father had been in and out of prison for more than a decade on charges of burglary, theft and indecency with a child.
"I came from that," Pete said. "Just thinking about certain things can really mess with a person's head, you know?"
He skipped school, smoked marijuana and lost a friend in a robbery gone wrong. At the detention center, he said, refusing to
attend school led to 36 hours locked alone in a room.
"The adults would make fun of it, like a 'time-out,'" he said. But when more than a day passed, "it gets to you."
Now that he is free, Garanzuay is working to earn a G.E.D.
Dressed for a visit to the Capitol in baggy jeans, with a thin mustache and close-cropped hair, he looked down at his arms, where he has documented his childhood. On the left, the side reserved for good things, a tattoo shows only his mother's name. On the right, the side reserved for bad things, a boy sews his eyes shut "because he doesn't want to see stuff like that."
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