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.

By law, YOS staffers are supposed to be "trained in the treatment of juveniles" and "trained to act as role models and mentors." The transfers received two weeks of special classes about YOS operations and its philosophy. The program's founder says that wasn't nearly enough.

"If you take a person who's worked in adult corrections for ten or twenty years, and you give them a week of training with juveniles, you're not dealing with the issue," Swanson says. "The DOC folks felt that anyone sitting down with a kid, talking to him about his problems, was engaging in fraternization, and they actually reported some of the Denver staff for doing just that."

"We put their folks through the training program, but it didn't take with too many of them," Groff says. "They just sat through it because they had to do it. They weren't interested in what they considered to be 'coddling' inmates."

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.

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Conflicts between old and new staffers erupted immediately, developing into what the "old" YOS contingent describes as an ongoing harassment campaign. They say they were singled out for searches, investigated on bogus charges, threatened with official reprisals -- all for trying to implement the program the way it had worked in Denver.

The first day she reported to work in Pueblo, Jennie Kinsfather was told that the clothing she'd worn at DRDC didn't fit the prescribed YOS uniform. Another day she was sent home for wearing fingernail polish, even though a DOC transfer with similar nails provoked no such action. Petty humiliations seemed to be the order of the day: Dog droppings were deposited in the van of an award-winning teacher while it was parked in the "Employee of the Year" space.

"The more I pushed for the philosophy, the more harassment I got, and the more the kids I was working with got harassed," says Kinsfather, who resigned from YOS last winter. "I'd come in to work and find out some of my kids were in lockdown for trying to confront staff about the staff breaking YOS rules. It was just an uphill battle."

After a year, two-thirds of the YOS staffers who'd relocated from Denver had left the program. But the staff squabbles weren't the only disruption in day-to-day operations. The renovation of the Pueblo campus was still badly behind schedule when YOS moved in, and many of the early arrivals found themselves in a near-lockdown situation for weeks. They were denied parental visits and shortchanged on boot camp and other basic program components, such as anger-management courses and the guided group sessions.

"We had maybe a hundred kids who got very little programming," Kinsfather says. "By the time I got down there, three or four months after they did, most of those kids hadn't been in a class yet."

The construction frenzy also created obvious breaches in security. Within weeks of the move to Pueblo, three YOS residents hopped a temporary fence. Three more escaped the following December. All six were quickly recaptured, but the incidents exposed more than simply a security problem. As a DOC internal report noted, the program's fabled positive peer culture had failed to prevent the escapes.

"It was clear prior to this [December] incident and during the escape that residents were aware of the intent of the three escapees," the report states. "However, no one in the group addressed their intent or alerted staff until confronted in the unit."

The escapes provided the DOC with additional justification for its "security-oriented approach" to YOS. But Groff says the escapes demonstrate that the residents were losing faith in the program. "The positive peer culture was breaking down in Pueblo," he says, "probably because it wasn't being reinforced by the employees."

Groff, a former legislator and high school teacher, retired as director of YOS in October 1998. He was planning to leave soon anyway, he says, but his decision was "sped up by the Pueblo situation." It was clear to him that YOS had lost key supporters within the DOC and was not the program he had embraced four years earlier.

"It became very frustrating," he says. "DOC's central office supported it because it was a lot of money, but they didn't seem to understand the philosophy."

Groff says he'd obtained a commitment from then-DOC director Ari Zavaras that his successor would be Swanson, a nationally recognized authority on youth violence who'd been involved in the planning of YOS from the beginning. Instead, the job of "acting director" went to Sam Williams, who'd been in charge of the boot camp, and then was abruptly shifted a few weeks later to Irving Jaquez, a veteran DOC administrator with no prior acquaintance with the program. (Zavaras, now head of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, denies there was any such commitment; state hiring procedures wouldn't have allowed him to "anoint" a new director, he says.)

"I thought the message was quite clear," says Swanson, who resigned a month after Groff. "I preferred to work with someone who had the same priorities of making a difference in kids' lives that I did."

Last December, Jaquez and Mary West, the DOC regional director overseeing the move to Pueblo, appeared at a public meeting in Denver attended by dozens of YOS parents alarmed by the rapid changes in the program. The two insisted that, despite all of the new attention to security, the program was thriving.

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