TYC ombudsman says his appointment sends 'strong message'
Web Posted: 05/13/2007 10:17 PM CDT
San Antonio Express-News
In the wake of the abuse scandals that have rocked the Texas Youth Commission, prisoner rights advocate Will Harrell helped draft the TYC reform bills that are making their way through the Legislature. Last week, he left his post as executive director of the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to become the ombudsman for the state's scandal-plagued juvenile correctional system. In an interview with Austin Bureau reporter Lisa Sandberg, he talks about his new mission, his views on prisons and whether he thinks some kids are just plain "bad."
Q. Tell us about your new assignment?
A. It's sort of wild. I wrote a bill to include the strongest possible model ombudsman's office, never thinking that I was describing my own job down the line. Now I wonder if I put too much responsibility on the position now that I'm in it. (Laughter)
Essentially, fundamentally, the ombudsman position is an independent watchdog and voice for kids in the TYC system, as well as their parents and the community from which they come. I will dedicate a lot of my time informing the kids what their rights are and making sure they know they can contact me. The law is very clear: They can contact me freely. They cannot be interfered with. And there shall be no retaliation against them. And that goes for the guards, too. I'm of the belief that a happy staff makes for happy kids.
Q. You said earlier that you would work for the interests of the kids, their parents and the state of Texas, but not TYC. Explain.
A. This is intended to be an independent ombudsman. I will be connected to the Texas Youth Commission, but my budget will be independent. They can't hire or fire me.
The way the legislation is unraveling, it's not set in stone, but my prediction is it will be a stand-alone state agency and ultimately I will report to the Legislature, the people of Texas.
Whether you like ACLU policies or not, the fact that they have selected the director of the ACLU of Texas sends a strong message. They're not trying to cover up anything because they know the ACLU. I'm not ACLU anymore but I've been an advocate invested in the civil rights and human rights of these kids.
Q. You've worked on prison issues for how long?
A. Twenty years in college and particularly in law school I've been drawn to issues of incarceration. I'm fascinated by the philosophy and theories of incarceration and confinement. I'm fascinated by the anthropology of it, the subculture that is the prison population, prisoners and those who guard them.
Q. Do you think prisons are appropriate for kids?
A. There are certain kids, and I think mostly related to mental illness, that need to be confined only for the safety of those they may inadvertently cause harm to. There are some bad kids out there. I'm not na�ve. But I do not think that prison is appropriate for many of them � probably the large percentage of the kids who are currently incarcerated. A kid who is guilty of a misdemeanor for committing graffiti should not be shipped from Houston, Texas, all the way out to the deserts of Pyote to serve what should have been six months and ultimately ends up being three, four or five years.
I don't think there's such a thing as an incorrigible kid. Kids who need support and treatment and some guidance yes, but I don't think there's such a thing as an incorrigible kid.
Q. Will you have to cut your ponytail?
A. You show me the policy. There ain't no policy. I ain't cutting my hair.
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