The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

There are plenty of stories within YOS of kids who leapt several grades of reading levels in a single year, of former dropouts now gearing up to attend community college. But the most dramatic turnabout may be that of Heranio Escoto, whose story illustrates something about the peculiar attraction YOS holds for some gangbangers.

Two years ago, Escoto was sixteen and on the fast track to Canon City. He'd dropped out of school in ninth grade and left home for life in a gang in Colorado Springs. First came the juvenile charges for loitering and curfew violations, then the felonies: possession of an explosive device, criminal impersonation, motor-vehicle theft--all in one day's work.

"I had a big authority problem," Escoto says. "I disliked authority with a passion. I was in the victim stance, like 'They're out to get me.'"

Translation: A cop arrested Escoto's best friend, and Escoto tried to blow up the police car with a Molotov cocktail.

"My first thought was, 'Shoot the cop,'" he says. "But that would just get me in prison. I had some other thoughts, about causing a wreck or something. Then I thought, 'I'll blow up his cop car. He won't see me.' But Mother Nature was on my side. The wind snuffed it out."

With three felonies coming down on him all at once, Escoto was looking at 48 years on a habitual-offender rap. His lawyer was able to plea-bargain the deal down to six years, or two years in YOS. Escoto took the latter, but after Hell Day, he was wishing he'd gone straight to prison.

"I thought, man, I don't want to deal with this," he recalls. "I was asleep when they rushed into my room and told me to get moving. I did two hours of PT, and I wanted to give up. I was a smoker. I couldn't even run five minutes."

That was ten months ago. Now Escoto is completing his GED and planning to enroll in college in the fall. He's entered Phase Two, the final ninety days of incarceration, during which residents begin preparing for job interviews and re-entry into the community. And he wears the maroon polo shirt of a member of the Rams Club, the highest level of status within YOS, a kind of hallowed fraternity or gang-within-a-gang.

Rams is yet another YOS acronym: Reaching to Attain Mature Status. To join the Rams, a candidate must have an exemplary record, obtain written letters of reference from staffers and be approved by unanimous vote of the membership. Successful applicants can leave their pod unsupervised, have access to TV and a stereo, more gym time and a host of other privileges. The group also has a certain degree of authority over the rest of their podmates, including the assignment of clean-up duties.

"We do have some power," Escoto says. "There are some residents who feel we're out to get them. But we try to figure out solutions to better the pod."

Escoto says he hasn't seen his mother in two years. His most regular visitor is a volunteer Big Brother type he refers to as a "rent-a-friend." His path is hardly all clover now, but being in the Rams Club helps, he says. Whenever the stress of confinement gets to him, he can retreat to the Rams Den and listen to music, or go to the computer lab, or play basketball, "or just lay in my room and think, 'I'm this close to being out, don't mess up now,'" he says.

Being a Ram feels right to Escoto, just like gangbanging did in his former life. Sometimes he wishes the Rams had more power, like a similar club formed by the YOS kids sent to Missouri called the Generals. From what he's heard, the Generals get to march the other kids to chow, monitor their behavior and "consequent" them on the spot.

"If the staff gave us more say-so, things would change a lot faster around here," he says. "But I don't think it's all staff's fault. I mean, we are locked up in a maximum-security prison."

"Today I had an easily angered in general."
"Today I showed an authority problem and an easily angered."
"Today I had an inconsiderate to self and others."

"Let's stop jacking around. Let's stop lollygagging. Let's get to some business."

The sixteen members of Group Three sit in a circle, tuning up for their daily Guided Group Interaction. Along with academic- and cognitive-skills classes, GGI is at the heart of what YOS is all about. It's not so much group therapy as a communal confessing of sins.

Although two staffers attend each meeting--one as observer, one as nominal leader--the sessions are actually run by the residents. One by one, team members identify their "problem behaviors." When they're finished, the group votes on who is most in need of the others' counseling, criticism and advice. They then focus on that individual for the rest of the session.

Today the group is wrestling over whether to focus on Mr. Tafoya or Mr. Trevino. (In GGI, everyone becomes a Mister.) Mr. Tafoya, a Ram, blew up at another resident yesterday and is worried about repeating the incident. Mr. Trevino admits that he refuses to confront his friends in the program about their misbehavior; it feels too much like snitching, he says. The group settles on Mr. Trevino, in part because of the smirk on his face even as he admits to his "negative behavior."

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