What We Have Here...Is a Failure to Rehabilitate

The youthful offender system was supposed to save gang kids. Now it’s about snitching, fronting—and growing numbers of teens headed for adult prison.

Juan Toribio could see signs of trouble the first day he walked into the cafeteria in Pueblo. They were gang signs, flashed from table to table among the baby-faced convicts of Colorado's Youthful Offender System as they tucked into their meatloaf and cheese mac.

In 1997, Toribio was convicted of assault and menacing in El Paso County. At age seventeen he was facing a nine-year sentence in adult prison. The sentence was suspended, conditional on Toribio's completing three years in YOS -- the state's experimental corrections program for violent teens who seem destined for a lifelong diet of prison chow.

The program is no picnic. Gangbangers and other felons as young as fourteen, prosecuted as adults for crimes ranging from theft to manslaughter, must endure four to six weeks of a grueling, highly regimented boot camp. That's followed by months of special classes and counseling sessions designed to change criminal behavior, then up to a year of intensive supervision in community corrections before release. Slipping up at any stage -- fighting, gang activity, a dirty drug test, failure to get a job and keep it -- could mean a trip back to boot camp or a one-way ticket to the adult prison system.

Fall in: Teens  who falter in the  Youthful Offender  System are "remediated" to boot camp and the tender care of drill instructors.
Fall in: Teens who falter in the Youthful Offender System are "remediated" to boot camp and the tender care of drill instructors.
Fall out: Antoinette Bustamante (top) and Juan Toribio (bottom) spent months in lockdown waiting to be revoked to adult prison for failing to follow YOS rules (center). Since the program moved to Pueblo, revocations have doubled.
Fall out: Antoinette Bustamante (top) and Juan Toribio (bottom) spent months in lockdown waiting to be revoked to adult prison for failing to follow YOS rules (center). Since the program moved to Pueblo, revocations have doubled.

Details

Previous Westword article

"McPrison"
How a private prison brought jobs -- and violence, corruption and scandal -- to Burlington.
September 30, 1999
By Alan Prendergast

"The Insiders,"
Archive of prison-related Westword stories, including "The Sins of Youth."

Toribio knew the program was his last chance to turn his life around; he plunged into YOS like a Hindu into the Ganges. Last year he'd made it to a Denver halfway house, on the brink of a return to the street under community supervision, before his drinking problem began to catch up with him. Recognizing that his previous brushes with the law had occurred while he was intoxicated, he begged to be put on Antabuse. The first time he fell off the wagon, he reported himself.

"I've never seen a young man do so much to benefit from the system," says Toribio's attorney, Noreen Simpson, an El Paso County deputy public defender. "This is a kid who really worked hard to make the program work for him."

Last fall Toribio was sent back to boot camp for "remediation" as punishment for his drinking. No big deal, he thought, but what he saw alarmed him. A few months earlier, YOS had relocated from Denver to a new campus on the grounds of the state hospital in Pueblo, with considerable shakeup in staff and leadership. In many ways, it no longer seemed like the same program.

In Denver, the young offenders -- known as "residents," not inmates -- had been encouraged to confront each other over their bad behavior in an effort to establish a "positive peer culture." Youth counselors had worked closely with the teens on their problems and labored to open lines of communication. By contrast, many of the Pueblo staffers were transfers from adult prisons in the Department of Corrections who seemed eager to report the "inmates" for the slightest infraction. And some of the YOS residents, Toribio noted, were flashing gang signs in the cafeteria and muttering about what they would do to anyone who snitched on them.

"It was all wrong," Toribio says. "There was no confrontation going on, nobody helping each other out. It was either you were snitching or not snitching. And the guards weren't trying to help, either. They'd just write you up right away."

Toribio took stock of his fellow transgressors in boot camp, clad in baggy yellow jumpsuits, and saw more problems. "It used to take a lot to get someone sent to remediation," he explains. "They were sending people back for things that could have been handled other ways -- like cussing at staff or not doing your homework. They were choosing out people who cussed at staff, yet there were staff who cussed at us all the time. People were telling me YOS was all messed up and they'd rather be in prison."

Toribio made it through his remediation and was returned to community supervision in Denver. Within a few weeks, though, he was back in a cell -- and on his way to adult prison. He'd shown up at his group home after curfew one night, sick from a combination of beer and Antabuse. Questioned by staff, he quickly became belligerent.

"They told me I was a screwup," he recalls. "I said, 'I'm telling you guys that I have problems, and you don't want to help me out.' I started getting mad. I said, 'Fuck parole. Fuck you. This program's a bunch of shit.'"

Toribio spent the next four months in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in Pueblo, followed by another five months in a county jail, awaiting a judge's decision approving his revocation from YOS. He now must serve the rest of his nine-year adult sentence. He's become yet another casualty of YOS, his disillusionment shared not only by growing numbers of teens who've failed the program but by former staffers and administrators who say that the program itself has failed.

Since the disastrous move to Pueblo in the summer of 1998, YOS has been awash in turnover and turmoil. The program has lost more than 80 percent of its former staff and is now on its fourth director in fourteen months. There were six escapes among its 200 residents in the first six months of operation on the new campus, along with a sharp increase in fights, alleged gang activity and physical confrontations with staff. The rate of revocations to adult prison has doubled. And the program's apparent shift in direction, from a focus on rehabilitation to dispatching "screwups," has been harshly criticized by its own creators.

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