By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"There were a lot of systems that weren't in place," Jaquez explained to the parents. "We had chaos going on."
"My kid's in there because he deserves it," one parent said. "He's a junkie. But that doesn't mean he should be warehoused."
"Our children are stagnating," complained another. "They are seeing prison-type games from prison guards. There are personnel there who are turning it into a prison."
How a private prison brought jobs -- and violence, corruption and scandal -- to Burlington.
September 30, 1999
By Alan Prendergast
Archive of prison-related Westword stories, including "The Sins of Youth."
West denied that staffers from Denver were being harassed into leaving. "We are encouraging the Denver staff to take the lead in everything," she insisted.
Any DOC employees who didn't fit in with the program, she said, would be offered a "non-punitive transfer" to another post. (According to current director Gomez, who took over from Jaquez in March, there have been four such transfers during his tenure, out of more than 200 employees.)
Behind the scenes, though, staffers were reporting a darker picture. In a five-page letter of resignation submitted shortly before West and Jaquez started handing out assurances, YOS researcher Fran Wackwitz outlined several of the ongoing deficiencies in the program.
Four months after the move, some of the DOC transfers still hadn't been trained in YOS procedures, "yet they are working with YOS youth," Wackwitz wrote. Many of the program's "essential ingredients" had been "severely curtailed or disrupted" by the move, she noted, and "program activities and staff assignments are often being determined not by overall program need, but by perceived needs for high levels of external security...If YOS becomes no more than a juvenile prison following an adult correctional model of custody and control, it will fail."
Wackwitz sent her letter to Sam Williams. Even as she was drafting it, Williams was reassigned from acting director to acting deputy director. A few weeks later, he was gone, too, after enduring a steady stream of teachers and counselors from Denver coming to his office in tears, lamenting the harassment and the dismantling of the program they'd worked so hard to build.
Williams insists that the DOC transfers weren't the real problem. "It's convenient to point to the staff," he says. "But the truth is, those in charge did not believe in the program. They gave it lip service, and that was all. They said the right things to the parents and the legislature, but their actions did not support what they were saying."
The Denver staff had expected to see the Pueblo site turn into a minimum-security camp, with ample opportunities for residents to earn additional freedoms through hard work and good behavior. What they got was a muddy construction site wrapped in razor wire. Residents were escorted everywhere, just as they had been in DRDC. But now they were being treated as hardcore convicts, and the gang signs were resurfacing.
"It was supposed to be the program that would keep people in, not fences," Williams sighs. "Everything they did told the residents, 'I don't believe in you, and this program doesn't work.'"
Brian Gomez is all smiles as he walks the Pueblo campus on a balmy fall day, reporter in tow. If people want to question what YOS has become, he'll be glad to show them.
Gomez spent eighteen years in juvenile corrections before applying for the YOS directorship. Eight months in, his enthusiasm for the job seems undiminished. He greets residents warmly; points with pride at the progress they've been making in landscaping the grounds; notes that the perimeter now features only a single strand of razor wire. Practically every answer to a journalistic inquiry is prefaced with a crisp "sir," like a nervous tic.
"Sir, I won't pretend there aren't problems between staff," he says. "I think it's broader than a DOC-versus-YOS perspective. It took some meshing and coaching to work things out, but the folks we have are ideal for the program. They're flexible individuals. They want to role-model and mentor the young folks."
The tour includes tidy dorm rooms, a busy cafeteria and well-lit classrooms. There are computers in abundance, as well as equipment for teaching barbering and cosmetology, electronics repair and video production. (The program is seeking instructors for automotive and construction trades as well.) The $36 million, 480-bed campus has resources far beyond the constraints of the Denver program.
In Gomez's view, it also has its share of success stories. He offers one example of positive peer pressure in action. Not long ago, a ten-dollar roll of pop-machine tokens disappeared from an incoming shipment. The missing roll became a point of discussion at a campus-wide assembly in the gymnasium. All of the tokens were soon returned, Gomez says, and several high-ranking residents were stripped of their leadership status for their role in the theft.
Such stories, though, have to be balanced against the accounts of staff and residents who see aspects of the program a casual observer would never see. Juan Toribio remembers how staff would caution his team to watch their mouths whenever VIPs were touring the place. "They told us that if the program got shut down, we'd go to prison," he says. "So a lot of people were afraid to say anything negative."