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.

"The program elements have been reduced to almost a token approach," says Richard Swanson, a psychologist who was the principal author of the program. "I turned in my resignation after I lost several battles."

"It would be a shame if that program, which was on the cutting edge of youth corrections, should fail," says Regis Groff, the director of YOS for its first four years of operation -- and who, like Swanson, left a few months after the move to Pueblo. "If it fails, as far as I'm concerned, it's because the Department of Corrections just doesn't have what it takes to make it work."

Forged out of Denver's notorious "Summer of Violence" in 1993, YOS was a bold new approach to combating drive-by shootings and bloody carjackings. Cobbled from successful youth programs in other states, the idea was to offer young felons a shape-up-or-ship-out last chance rather than simply damning them to long sentences in the adult system. It was a creature of the Colorado General Assembly, which hammered out legislation authorizing the program during a special session called by Governor Roy Romer and ordered skeptical prison officials to get cracking.

Clash of cultures: Former YOS director Regis Groff (top) and psychologist Richard Swanson (bottom) say that corrections officials took a successful rehabilitation program and turned it into a youth prison.
Clash of cultures: Former YOS director Regis Groff (top) and psychologist Richard Swanson (bottom) say that corrections officials took a successful rehabilitation program and turned it into a youth prison.
Current YOS director Brian Gomez praises his staff's desire to "role-model and mentor the young folks."
Brett Amole
Current YOS director Brian Gomez praises his staff's desire to "role-model and mentor the young folks."

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By Department of Corrections standards, YOS was not only innovative -- emphasizing education, discipline, teamwork and vocational training rather than punishment, punishment and more punishment -- but incredibly expensive. Indeed, its average cost per resident of around $110 per day is nearly double that of adult inmates in the DOC, making it one of the most costly corrections programs in the country. But if enough YOS graduates stayed out of prison, its supporters argued, that would more than justify the cost. Early results were encouraging, and the program soon began to attract national attention ("The Sins of Youth," July 18, 1996).

Through its first four years, YOS boasted a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent -- 75 percent lower than that of the adult prison system. (A recent legislative audit disputed that claim, but corrections officials stand by it.) "We were clearly on the right track," says Swanson. "The last year in Denver, we had finally got everything up and going. But then we moved to Pueblo, and that put people from the adult side of DOC in charge of it."

Swanson, Groff and other former staffers say YOS took a turn for the worse as the DOC began to exert more direct control over what had been, up to that point, a separate fiefdom. Although relocating to Pueblo had been contemplated for some time in order to expand the program, the move was accompanied by a number of startling policy shifts by DOC headquarters, including a key decision to lower educational and training qualifications for numerous staff positions. That allowed dozens of vacancies to be filled by correctional officers who'd never worked with juveniles before.

"It was a culture clash," Swanson says. "The idea of working with kids in a way that makes a difference is so alien to the average DOC person."

But corrections officials insist that after an admittedly rocky start, YOS is now operating as intended in Pueblo. "We knew it was going to be difficult bringing this program from Denver to Pueblo," says DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough. "We knew we were going to have some pains, but they were greater than anticipated. I can tell you, though, that the department is committed to this program."

"My staff endured a difficult fourteen months," adds Brian Gomez, the current director of YOS. "They lost administration and they were beat up in the media. But they're wide open to work as a team now."

Yet interviews with current and former YOS employees and youths who are serving time in Pueblo or have recently been revoked, as well as their parents, attorneys and other interested parties, paint a fairly dismal picture of a once-promising enterprise. Over the past year, the critics say, YOS has suffered not only a clash of cultures but a fundamental change in philosophy.

Staffers who made the move from Denver to Pueblo -- many of whom requested anonymity, citing fear of retaliation -- say they were greeted with hostility and suspicion by DOC regulars, branded as "chocolate hearts" who melt with compassion for teenage hoods and, in some cases, harassed into giving up their jobs. Others talk about watered-down programs and devalued educational offerings despite signs on campus proclaiming, "Around here we consider school sacred."

Counselors and therapists describe how inexperienced DOC transfers, fresh from a mere two weeks of training in the YOS approach, would provoke residents into outbursts rather than teach them how to control their anger. Youths diagnosed with mental illnesses sometimes spent months in isolation awaiting revocation hearings, they say, a form of slow torture as severe as anything the adult system can dish out.

In fact, the program's harshest critics believe that what the DOC has created in Pueblo, out of perverse design or ineptitude, is little more than a junior-varsity, overpriced version of an adult prison. They point to a string of administrative decisions, from the initial staffing maneuver to the recent arrival of sixty adult female prisoners temporarily assigned to empty beds on campus, as proof that the DOC is reallocating YOS resources and staff contrary to what the legislature intended.

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