Man struggles to rebuild life after TYC ordeal
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Man struggles to rebuild life after TYC ordeal Ex-inmate says system built to help only beat him down 11:23 AM CST on Saturday, December 1, 2007By GREGG JONES / The DallasMorning Newsgjones@dallasnews.com
Chris Gann was a 14-year-old in need of mending when he walked into a TexasYouth Commission prison in summer 2001. "The only thing that I learned in TYC is that I will never mistreat or abusesomebody. I know how it feels." says Chris Gann, 21, with his sister's baby.He spent four years in TYC facilities and was released from parole in June.He had been beaten, sexually abused and abandoned.
He never knew his father.His mother was a drug addict. Passed among relatives, he wound up in statecustody at 12.Two years later, he pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a10-year-old foster brother and was sentenced to TYC.
In the nearly four years he spent in TYC facilities, Mr. Gann said, he was heavily medicated, beaten, psychologically abused and subjected to sexualadvances by staff. In June, he was released from TYC parole and began a newlife beyond the agency's control. Now 21, he works at an Amarillo-areastore, saving money for college.
The Texas Youth Commission vowed to fix broken children, but it failedthousands of youth in its care. The agency crumbled this year amidwidespread reports of physical and sexual abuse. While Chris Gann's story is unique, his experiences at the troubled state agency are not. "I don't think TYC did anything to help me," he said. "They knew they had power over you, and they took advantage of it."
Road to TYC Almost from the day he was born, Chris Gann was on a path to TYC. When he was 2, Child Protective Services took him from his mother for several weeksbecause of suspected neglect. He lived with his mother off and on until hewas 7, when child welfare officers removed him because of her drug use andplaced him with an aunt, court records show. In the years that followed, the boy with strawberry-blond hair and a gentlenature bounced from relatives to foster families in Amarillo and Pampa,Texas. Some of his mother's lovers beat him terribly, he and his mothersaid. "I would go to school with bruises on me," Mr. Gann said. "Teachers wouldask me: What was wrong? Why did I look like I did? I was always scared tosay something." Mr. Gann was 9 and nearly illiterate when he went to live with Brad andBetty Bradford, the parents of a man who married his mother."He was a fine little man," Mrs. Bradford recalled. "He could clean house.He would do anything you asked him to do." He eventually returned to his mother, but the homecoming ended badly. In1999, she gave up custody for the final time after a boyfriend threatened toleave otherwise. She signed the papers in front of her distraught son and,at 12,
Chris Gann became a permanent ward of the state. When he was 13, Texas authorities sent him to live with a man in Indiana who claimed to be his father, court records state. They lived in a decrepit house frequented by drunks and drug users, Mr. Gann said. The man plied him with liquor and beer, Mr. Gann said, and later put him to work on a tobacco farm. After about two months, Mr. Gann accused the man of sexual abuse and wasreturned to Texas. The sexual abuse allegations were never corroborated,according to court records. Mr. Gann said he still isn't sure whether theman is his father.
Back in Amarillo, the teen was admitted to a hospital for seizure-likestates and "long periods of stares or trances," according to court records.He was diagnosed as having a nervous breakdown and admitted to a psychiatriccenter. Mr. Gann was released that fall and placed with an Amarillo foster family.He was attending school, doing his homework and undergoing counseling for his painful past. Then, as before, his life imploded. In March 2001, Mr. Gann's foster parents accused him of sexually assaulting their 10-year-old son and another foster child. Court documents say the 10-year-old described being "dragged down the hallway and put into the bedroom" where oral and anal sex was performed. Mr. Gann describes the sexual contact as consensual, youthful experimentation. But a judge found him guilty of aggravated sexual assault and ordered him to TYC. Mr. Gann said his court-appointed attorney made TYC sound like a summercamp. "She put all these papers in front of me and said, 'All these papers say is you messed up, you're going to go to TYC for a little while, you're going to come out and everything is going to be OK,' " Mr. Gann said. 'A real nasty place' The staff at the TYC prison in Marlin called it "discipline training." Every afternoon, for an hour or longer in the summer heat, Mr. Gann and other Marlin inmates were forced to run laps around a dirt track inside the compound, he said. On a staff member's command, the inmates would throw themselves to the ground for push-ups, then scramble to their feet for more laps. Anyone who stopped without permission was slammed to the ground, handcuffedand left to lie in the blazing sun, he said."We were all just falling over and throwing up," said Mr. Gann, by then 14. When it was all over, "we would all be laying there, crying, sore, all scraped up and bleeding." Young inmates who got sick or hurt found little sympathy, he said. "When you would go to the infirmary, all they would tell you was to drink water and you'd be OK," he said.
Chris Gann, who spent four years in the system, is starting over in Pampa,Texas. He's saving for college and hopes to become a lawyer, he said, so he can protect other young offenders. Inmates also performed a drill known as"55-5," he said, in which they would stand at attention for 55 minutes at their bunks, then sit for five minutes. They did this about six times a day,he said. Mr. Gann said inmates who angered guards were confined to filthy cells infested with cockroaches and rats."Marlin was a real nasty place," he said. Director of security On his final day at Marlin, Mr. Gann learned his next stop would be the SanSaba State School. Returning TYC inmates and Marlin staff told terrifying stories about the Central Texas juvenile prison. Inmates got "beaten up by guards and shanked by kids if you got on the bad side of guards," Mr. Gann said he was told. Shortly after his arrival at San Saba, Mr. Gann met the prison's director of security, Ray Brookins, who years later would play a leading role in the sex-abuse scandal that brought down TYC. In two years at San Saba, Mr. Brookins had been disciplined eight times for policy violations or poor work, TYC records show. He had received 90 days'employment probation for accessing pornographic Web sites at work and storing photos of naked men and women on his office computer, the recordsshow. Mr. Brookins was known at San Saba for another habit: He "regularly took youth into his office, alone in the evening, and with the blinds closed," a TYC report later noted. The security director frequently asked inmates if they would like to clean his office or the security cells after hours, Mr. Gann said. Mr. Gann said he always declined, but he couldn't avoid aggressive strip-searches performed by Mr. Brookins. The searches were standard procedure for inmates after work shifts in the San Saba cafeteria.Typically, security staff had inmates strip and squat to make sure they weren't hiding contraband. During the searches, Mr. Gann said, Mr. Brookins would touch the genitals of inmates. Mr. Brookins did not respond to calls seeking comment. He is awaiting trial on charges of sexually abusing young male inmates at TYC's West Texas State School in 2004 and 2005, after leaving San Saba. He has denied the charges.
Brutal guards, big dreams At San Saba, Mr. Gann said, he experienced first hand TYC's culture of fear and intimidation. One day, his sister mentioned in a letter that she had moved to Amarillo's east side. A guard decided the "east side" reference was gang code. A security officer handcuffed Mr. Gann's arms behind his back and shoved him into a door. The officer continued slamming him into walls and windows on the way from the dormitory to the security unit, said Mr. Gann."I had a black eye, a scratch on my forehead, and huge knot on the side of my head," he said. When he sought treatment at the prison infirmary, he was told only to stay out of trouble and drink water. "They told me I needed to learn to behave so I wouldn't have to go to security," he said, referring to the prison's secure area where inmates were taken for protection as well as punishment.
In late summer 2001, volunteer Gwen Rogers offered to mentor young inmates at the San Saba State School. She was assigned to Chris Gann. At their first meeting, Mr. Gann slurred his words and appeared to beheavily medicated, Mrs. Rogers recalled. He wouldn't make eye contact. He burned with anger and distrust. Afterward, Mrs. Rogers said, she went home and cried. She returned every week, slowly gaining Mr. Gann's trust. He would greet her with a big smile and a hug, and they would launch into conversation. "There was a gentleness in him," she said. Sometimes, they talked about the mother who had abandoned him and the crime he had committed.
Timothy Kincaid became a ward of the state at 12 years old, when his mother gave up custody. He later pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a foster brother. "He was very remorseful," said Mrs. Rogers. "He would say, if he could take it back, he wouldn't have done it, but that's what had been done to him all his life." Mr. Gann worked hard to improve himself in the prison's education program,Mrs. Rogers said, and he bubbled with excitement when he passed a test or completed a subject. He began to dream about life outside the prison, the career in law he hoped to pursue, the blue Mustang convertible he planned to buy. "He said when he got a blue Mustang he was going to come back and pick me upand take me to get a hamburger," Mrs. Rogers said. "That's one thing I'll always remember." 'So many sad things'Mrs. Rogers said she tried to make Mr. Gann laugh, "because there were so many sad things going on there."
One incident typified for her the brutal treatment of inmates. A guard had grabbed an inmate during Bible study in the prison chapel, roughly handcuffed the youth's hands behind his back and dragged him away, said Mrs.Rogers. The youth's offense: He had asked what verse they were reading. "I saw a whole lot of abuse against kids," said Mr. Gann, "heads busted up,black eyes, stuff like that."
Encouraged by his mentor, Mr. Gann filed grievances against abusive staff.Some retaliated by slowing his progress through the TYC rehabilitation program, in which inmates must complete numbered phases and be approved for advancement. TYC guards and staff routinely retaliated against inmates throughout the system by filing disciplinary actions that resulted in a loss of phases,thereby lengthening confinement, investigations show. Mr. Gann said that one caseworker gave him a disciplinary citation for lack of eye contact during a conversation. When Mr. Gann made eye contact, the caseworker cited him for too much eye contact, then cited him again for explaining his behavior."To them, it's sort of a game to keep you in there," he said. Some staff pressured inmates for sexual favors in exchange for privileges such as watching television, he said. Others sometimes instigated violence against troublemakers, including inmates who reported brutality. Mr. Gann's problems were repeated throughout the TYC system, according to investigations by The Dallas Morning News. "Staff would tell you they want you to assault another kid that's in the[TYC] program, so they'd go do their paperwork or go to the bathroom so they wouldn't see it," he said. Mr. Gann said he realized that he had to give in to TYC culture if he hoped to get out before he turned 21. From then on, he said, if staff asked him to fabricate accusations against other inmates, he did. "I did whatever they told me, whether it was right or wrong, so I could go home," he said.
Mr. Gann achieved two goals before leaving San Saba: In 2003, he earned his GED. The following year, he collected his high school diploma. In September 2004, two days before his 18th birthday, Mr. Gann was informed that he would be moving on. But TYC wasn't finished with him yet.
Halfway home Mr. Gann said he encountered problems soon after he arrived at a TYC halfway house in Austin, and most of them revolved around caseworker Craig Headley. The trouble started when the caseworker came to him and said, "Chris, I think you're attracted to other guys," Mr. Gann said. The caseworker asked him to share his sexual fantasies, or he wouldn't go home. On another occasion, Mr. Headley took him into his office and put a hand on his leg, he said. "I could tell he was sexually attracted to me," said Mr. Gann. " He wouldtell other guys, 'Chris is gay.' So I reported him. "Mr. Gann said TYC accused him of lying. Mr. Headley told The News that confidentiality restrictions prevented him from discussing Mr. Gann's allegations. "I've certainly never had such allegations made before," he said in a telephone conversation. "Even so, I can't defend myself and break confidentiality." Mr. Headley said he resigned from TYC in December 2006. TYC personnel records state that Mr. Headley resigned "in lieu of termination" on Nov. 30, 2006. His resignation came after he was disciplined at least eight times for poor job performance or policy violations, TYC records show.
The most serious incident occurred in August 2006. TYC placed Mr. Headley on 90 days' probation for offenses that included "failing to maintain appropriate staff/youth relationships" and "failure to exercise the reason and judgment expected of someone in your position," TYC records show. Twice during Mr. Gann's stay at Turman House, he filed grievances against Mr. Headley. And twice, around those times, Mr. Headley put notes in Mr.Gann's file flagging him as a threat to re-offend, according to TYC records.
In December 2004, a few weeks after his surrogate grandfather, Mr. Bradford,notified TYC headquarters that Mr. Gann was "languishing at Turman House without support or progress," Mr. Gann was allowed to work at a Long John Silver's restaurant in Austin. Mr. Gann was required to give his paycheck to a Turman administrator for deposit in a common inmate account, maintained at each TYC facility. Mr.Gann said he later discovered that his account was hundreds of dollars short. Other Turman inmates noticed similar discrepancies, he said. Mr. Gann said he filed a grievance about the missing money, and was told that funds had been deducted for various expenses but were accounted for. Scores of TYC inmates have made similar accusations about mishandling of funds over the past five years, agency records show.TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said the agency "has built-in redundancies to ensure accuracy and appropriateness in handling the money" in inmate accounts. Privacy laws, he said, prevented him from responding to allegations involving a specific inmate.
New life In March 2005, after six months at Turman, Mr. Gann was released to an independent living program in Dallas. He said he knew he would have to register as a sex offender with local police. But only after arriving in Dallas did Mr. Gann discover that TYC had classified him as a "high-risk" sex offender for his 2001 conviction, he said. As a result, the Texas Department of Public Safety mailed postcards to neighborhood residents and merchants that showed his photograph and listed his crime and current address. Mr. Gann said the postcards cost him a job and three apartments.He said he believes the high-risk classification was payback from Mr.Headley. "Mr. Headley told me he was going to make my life hard when I left Turman House," he said. TYC records list Mr. Headley as the person who notified the Dallas Police Department of Mr. Gann's classification. But TYC officials told Mr. Gann in a May letter that his "high-risk" classification was the result of a mistaken assessment at San Saba State School. On May 3, 2007, as The News was inquiring about the case, TYC changed Mr.Gann's risk rating to "moderate." In June, Mr. Gann completed his TYC parole and returned to the Panhandle to be near his surrogate grandmother and other relatives as he rebuilds hislife. He got a clerk's job at a discount store in Pampa and quickly was promoted to assistant manager. His background has made it impossible to find an apartment, he said, so he rents a motel room by the week. He has started saving money for college. And he hopes someday to be a lawyer, he said, so he can protect young offenders from the treatment he experienced. "The only thing that I learned in TYC is that I will never mistreat or abuse somebody," said Mr. Gann. "I know how it feels." PrintE-mail this articleForums © 2007, The Dallas Morning News, Inc. All Rights Reserved