The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

The Insiders
In the overcrowded Colorado prison system, corrections officials face a new breed of customer: the special-needs inmate. Much as public schools are now expected to tailor programs for the diverse range of children the state educates, the Colorado Department of Corrections is under increasing pressure to accommodate the ever-expanding pool of felons the state incarcerates.

In the case of mentally ill or retarded prisoners, for whom the state has built the just-opened $20 million San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, that decision was forced on the DOC by a federal judge. For the gangbangers and other young criminals the new Youthful Offender System is attempting to rehabilitate, at a staggering cost of $39,000 per inmate per year, it was the state legislature that made the call. And with mandatory sentences part of the law-and-order landscape of the 1990s--including a growing number of life-without-parole hitches for violent offenders--the DOC today is studying whether to build a whole new kind of prison: a "geriatric" lockup for the growing number of inmates destined to grow old and feeble in the joint.

The DOC's cradle-to-grave approach to its clientele has evolved from a strange amalgam of bureaucratic pragmatism, well-meaning idealism and old-fashioned power politics. And it's costing the taxpayers plenty. Westword will examine the strange new world behind bars in a series of articles, beginning this week with "The Young and the Reckless," Alan Prendergast's look at the Youthful Offender System. That controversial Denver-based program--the first of its kind in the country--is spending lavishly in an attempt to answer a simple question: Can any amount of money (or counseling, or discipline, or education) really persuade Colorado's baby-faced criminals to go straight?

Body rigid, eyes locked straight ahead, sixteen-year-old Richard stands at the head of the khakis, waiting for the order to march to chow. Behind him is a squad of yellows, easy to spot by their freshly shaved heads, pasty looks and baggy canary jumpsuits. Two weeks ago Richard was in yellow--fresh meat, just like the rest of them--but not anymore.

Looking less like a prison guard than a hypermuscular high school gym coach, A.J. McDonald strolls down the line, inspecting the troops. He pauses beside Richard and leans toward him, as if about to whisper a secret in his ear.

"Respect," McDonald says.
"Sir!" Richard bellows, his face screwed tight in concentration. "Respect is to show honor and professional consideration to yourself, one's superiors, fellow teammates and mission accomplishments, sir!"

The poker-faced McDonald moves on to the next teenager, also dressed in khaki. "Integrity," he snaps.

"Sir!" the seventeen-year-old responds. "Integrity is the quality of absolute honesty, sir!"

If he wanted to, McDonald could continue on down the line, quizzing his men about pain ("Sir! Pain is weakness leaving your body, sir!"), discipline and loyalty. But he seems satisfied with what he's hearing, and soon the entire crew is moving on, double-file--much to Richard's relief. Although he has the answers down cold, there was a hint of panic in the rat-a-tat way he shouted out his response. And why not? The first lesson everybody learns in the Youthful Offender System--Colorado's ambitious, controversial corrections program for violent teens between the ages of fourteen and eighteen--is about consequences.

Blow your lines and you could be ordered to drop for push-ups or to crab-walk the compound. Disobey an order and you'll probably get locked down in your cell or, worse, sent back to the yellows, just another bozo in a clown suit. Commit a major, truly suicidal offense--like, say, taking a swing at McDonald, who looks like he could separate your soul from your body on the spot--and you'll be on your way to a real prison, where young men have been known to suffer worse indignities than being forced to wear yellow jumpsuits.

Every one of the 193 males and 11 females in YOS is walking the thin line between delinquency and prison. Having been prosecuted as adults for crimes ranging from theft to assault and even manslaughter, they're facing an average of ten years in the adult system--sentences that have been suspended, conditional on the inmates' completing from two to six years in YOS.

Their color-coded journey begins in a special wing of the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center (DRDC) on Smith Road, where they endure four to six weeks of browbeating, sweat-popping, gut-busting, lunch-blowing boot camp, progressing from raw recruits (yellows) to salty veterans (khaki). That's followed by several months among the maroon-shirted upper-level "residents" of the program, who attend classes and counseling sessions while still incarcerated. Finally, they must complete the toughest challenge of all: back on the streets in civvies for up to a year of intensive "community supervision" before release. Slipping up at any stage--fighting, a dirty drug test, gang activity, failure to get a job and keep it--could mean a trip back to boot camp or a ticket to Canon City.

Forged out of the political uproar that followed Denver's much-hyped "Summer of Violence" in 1993, YOS is a hybrid, highly experimental program, cobbled together from a variety of carrot-and-stick approaches to coping with juvenile violence. Nothing quite like it exists anywhere else in the country, and its progress is being closely watched by criminologists of all stripes. Conservative legislators are enthusiastic about its no-nonsense military aspects, its emphasis on teamwork and discipline, and the succeed-or-perish philosophy of the place. Liberals like the stress on education and the program's commitment to salvaging kids who might otherwise be doing hard time.

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