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.

"Some of the line staff who came over from DOC really care for the kids and are very dedicated," says Elizabeth Penland, a psychologist who recently resigned from YOS after what she describes as "unfair and hostile treatment" from her superiors. "I blame administration for their lack of support and the deterioration of the program."

The problems within YOS come on the heels of a state investigation into widespread abuses within the Division of Youth Corrections, the subject of a scathing legislative audit last winter. It's enough to make one question the state's commitment to salvaging young people caught up in a cycle of violence, drugs and prison.

Ironically, youth crime has dropped significantly in Colorado in recent years, as it has across the country. Despite high-profile horrors such as the Columbine shootings, drive-bys are no longer the stuff of nightly newscasts and hot-button political posturing. That may help explain why, six years after all of the outraged speeches over the Summer of Violence, the Youthful Offender System has evolved into something quite different from what its framers envisioned.

Lock step: Staffers escort YOS residents to the cafeteria on the Pueblo campus.
Brett Amole
Lock step: Staffers escort YOS residents to the cafeteria on the Pueblo campus.


Previous Westword article

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."

"What really astounds me," says Sam Williams, a former state lawmaker who voted for the YOS program and served briefly as its acting director last year, "is that the legislature lets the DOC carry on like they're doing with this program."

For its first four years, YOS operated out of a warren of offices, classrooms and cellblocks in the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center (DRDC), the processing center for state prisoners on Smith Road. The space was cramped, cheerless and not always manageable, but former staffers say they saw remarkable things happen there.

In the dreary classrooms, hulking homeboys who'd terrorized entire neighborhoods struggled valiantly to learn their ABCs and how to make correct change for a dollar. Others worked on nabbing their high school diplomas or took college-level courses.

Three times a week, the residents gathered in small circles for GGI -- "guided group interaction," encounter sessions in which streetwise cholos lit into each other for exhibiting "thinking errors," strutting a "gangsta mentality" or failing to clean the toilets, thereby jeopardizing the team's hopes of hosting a Coke-and-pizza party in their pod.

Career delinquents with the worst possible resumés -- absent or abusive parents, siblings in prison, dope habits and gang ties, etc., etc. -- gradually swelled with pride as they learned to follow the rules and earn privileges and status, progressing from yellow clown suits to khaki uniforms to the maroon polo shirts that marked those who were on their way back to society.

"Considering that we were working inside a maximum-security prison, it was unbelievable the program that we were running," says Jennie Kinsfather, who joined the YOS staff in 1996.

Unlike the average correctional officer, YOS staffers were required to have a bachelor's degree and prior experience working with juveniles. They were also expected to have an unusual amount of interaction with the offenders, serving as role models, mentors and counselors as well as guards. And the offenders were enlisted to help police each other, through "positive peer culture" and other innovations that would never be taken seriously in a snitch-conscious adult prison.

In theory, the move to Pueblo was supposed to enhance YOS's unique features. Space was so tight at DRDC that dozens of offenders had to be sent to contract facilities out of state -- including the program's handful of females, who completed boot camp in Denver but received most of their training elsewhere. Relocating to some empty buildings on the grounds of the state hospital complex would allow for an expanded program in a more open, campus-like setting.

But as the much-delayed move inched closer, it became apparent that the plan had serious drawbacks. For one thing, YOS stood to lose many experienced staffers who were unwilling to pull up stakes and relocate. For another, the DOC hierarchy intended to waive the special staffing requirements in order to fill the anticipated vacancies with its own people, as part of an overall push to bring YOS operations into greater compliance with department standards.

"In Denver, YOS didn't have to do its own security," notes DOC spokeswoman McDonough. "It was felt that on this campus, we needed a more security-oriented approach."

Ex-director Groff contends that the DOC could have addressed its security concerns by recruiting staffers who had both corrections experience and prior contact with juveniles. "I told the central office that to the extent that we didn't take transfers, the better off we'd be," he says. "They ignored us."

Within the DOC, Pueblo is considered a choice work assignment -- it beats Ordway, for example, or Limon. Consequently, YOS vacancies were rapidly filled by tight-knit factions of DOC employees from various adult prisons whose commitment to working in youth corrections was newly minted. Since the transfers brought their seniority with them, those staffers who did relocate from Denver quickly found themselves not only outmanned but outranked.

"All the high-ranking positions were filled by people new to YOS," says Swanson, who argued strenuously against the transfers. "Our staff from Denver ended up on the midnight shift, when there was no opportunity to work with the kids."

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