(Texas Tribune) — Texas’ youth prison system urgently needs money to crawl out of its growing crisis, in which children are at times locked in cells 23 hours a day and nearly half of detained youth have been on suicide watch, the agency’s director told lawmakers Tuesday.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department — currently under federal investigation for an alleged pattern of abuse and mistreatment — is severely understaffed, with agency officials saying last month it is nearing systemic collapse. After The Texas Tribune reported last week on dire conditions inside the state’s five youth prisons, the Texas House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee looked for possible solutions at a legislative hearing.

“I think we can all agree this is cruel and unusual,” said state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, citing reports of children using water bottles as makeshift toilets while stuck in their cells and routinely hurting themselves to get attention from staff. “Is there anything between now and next [legislative] session that’s going to solve this?”

Talarico and 33 other House Democrats sent Gov. Greg Abbott a letter Monday asking him to bring lawmakers together immediately in a special legislative session to address the emergency. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the letter Tuesday.

TJJD sounded the alarm last month, when interim director Shandra Carter stopped accepting newly sentenced kids from county detention centers. The agency can’t guarantee the safety of the fewer than 600 youth already in its care, she said, because it can’t keep people on the job. Last year, the turnover rate for detention officers hit more than 70%, and most new hires quit within six months.

As of Tuesday, more than 160 children were waiting to be transferred from also understaffed county detention centers to the state’s five juvenile prisons, Carter told the committee. For many children, the wait, which in some cases has been as long as three months, means more time in lockup since they are unable to begin and complete required programming.

A spokesperson for Abbott, who alone can call lawmakers to the Texas Capitol outside of regular legislative sessions every two years, said last week that he will support TJJD’s request to increase salaries next session. The legislative session begins in January, and any budget decisions would largely not take effect until next September.

Talarico said more immediate action is needed.

In his Monday letter, he said a special legislative session must include measures to close “failed facilities” and restore and increase funding for anti-violence and rehabilitation programs. He also called for salary increases, prioritizing diverting children from incarceration, and providing alternatives for children in suicidal crises or with other mental health emergencies.

“Waiting until the next session is a death sentence for incarcerated children,” the letter read.

Juvenile justice advocates have long urged closing state prisons and instead putting necessary mental health and rehabilitative resources into local communities. Others have proposed building smaller facilities closer to urban centers, which have larger labor pools than the rural areas where most prisons are located.

For state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat who has long worked in juvenile justice, frustration with the state’s juvenile justice system comes from “getting the same answers and dealing with the same issues again and again and again, and there never seems to be any resolution.”

TJJD has been plagued by sexual abuse and mistreatment scandals for more than a decade. In recent years, counties have shifted more toward keeping children closer to home and sending fewer to the state prisons, shrinking the population from thousands to fewer than 600. But the ones left often are the most difficult to manage because of violent behavior, severe mental health needs or both.

Aside from funding, Wu on Tuesday pushed for sending even fewer kids to state facilities. A juvenile must have been found to have committed a felony to go to TJJD, but Wu said many smaller counties still send children to state prisons for low-level, nonviolent felonies.

While the majority of new admissions to TJJD last year were for violent offenses, 10% were for unauthorized use of a vehicle or possession of a controlled substance, according to data from Texas Appleseed, a social justice advocacy organization.

“Maybe we should … talk about not sending state jail felonies to TJJD,” he said in the hearing. “It seems like joyriding in a car seems like a bad offense to be sent to a state prison.”

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.