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.

Despite all of the classrooms, YOS residents are currently unable to obtain high school diplomas. Gomez says he's working on an arrangement with a local school district to issue diplomas, but other staffers say the program is pushing residents to settle for a less-demanding GED.

"They've made it impossible for the kids to get diplomas," says one staffer, "even though, to some of them, it's very important. I'm not sure they're getting the education they need."

"We were told in a staff meeting last week that education's primary function is 'to keep the inmates' time occupied,'" says another YOS employee. "In Denver, education was sacred. Now it's just a way to manage the kids all day."

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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Others claim that the Pueblo version of YOS has undercut not only the academic offerings but also the behavioral programs, such as the guided group interaction, that were crucial to its success. Gomez says that residents are still required to attend GGI three times a week. But that may not be the case for everyone.

"GGI isn't held as often as it should be, because there isn't enough qualified staff," says psychologist Elizabeth Penland. "It's frequently canceled."

The youths who continued to take the behavioral aspects of YOS seriously suffered the most from the operational shakeup, Penland suggests. Having bought into the notion that they should confront bad behavior, they were branded as snitches and troublemakers. They also had frequent run-ins with the new staffers over the staffers' ignorance or disregard of proper procedures.

"They were truly the leaders, and they were targeted for punishment," Penland says. "After a while, they learned just to shut up."

"Staff would just laugh it off when the kids tried to confront them about not following the rules," adds another employee who recently left YOS. "It made the kids cynical. It's hard to keep them focused on the rules when the staff aren't involved."

In YOS lingo, people who fake their way through a bad situation rather than truly examining their own behavior and thinking are said to be "fronting." But fronting, the critics say, is what's now expected in YOS. Just like in an adult prison, those who are good at it tend to have fewer problems with staff and an easier ride back to the street.

"These kids have it made now," says one veteran employee. "They don't have to change at all. They do a less-than-regular sentence and get out."

But not everyone can manage to front all the time. There's no shortage of stories among the YOS critics about staffers who took an instant dislike to one resident or another and rode him until he exploded; about the one kid who slowly, painfully re-established contact with his mother, his co-conspirator in a murder, then had the relationship abruptly terminated because DOC policy doesn't permit a parolee to visit an incarcerated felon; about the staffer who, rather than "role-model" for the young folks, suggested that the teenage girls in the program "model" for him.

Speaking of role models, the 190 teenage boys on the Pueblo campus now have sixty adult female prisoners sharing the grounds with them. With nearly half the beds designated for YOS vacant, the DOC received approval from the legislature's Joint Budget Committee to house some of its overflowing women's population there. The hormonally charged situation has cut into program staffing and resources.

"They've taken things that were bought with YOS money and given them to the women prisoners," says one employee. "The kids hate it. They're scared to death they're going to say or do the wrong thing and get revoked for it."

The female prisoners could lose their minimum-security status if caught misbehaving, but the YOS residents stand to lose much more. "The adult inmates know what they're doing," the employee says. "Their goal is to get the kids in trouble. They're going to see which one can bag a teenage kid."

Gomez says that contact between the adult prisoners and YOS residents has been kept to a minimum and is strictly monitored. Although an additional sixty women are slated to arrive next summer, he stresses that the situation is temporary, until YOS's numbers catch up with the bed space.

"Our projections are saying that we should be full," he explains. "But crimes are down, and there's been a change of public defenders, district attorneys and judges. They need to be reschooled in what the program is about."

In the interim, YOS staff members are being detailed to provide security and services to the adult females. Since the women arrived, at least two members of the staff have been suspended pending investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct.

Dressed in jail grays, eighteen-year-old Gintear Howard slumps at the defense table in a Jefferson County courtroom, waiting to find out if he's going to be revoked from YOS and sent to prison. If history is any guide, the decision is a foregone conclusion; when the DOC decides it's time to write off one of its YOS failures, judges almost always agree.

But today's revocation hearing is the first one before judicial maverick Brooke Jackson ("Judging the Judge," September 30), and he's having trouble with the notion that he's just supposed to rubber-stamp the DOC's recommendation. As part of a deal that landed him a thirty-day remediation, Howard admitted to making a threat against a YOS staffer. Now that YOS wants to revoke him for the same offense, Judge Jackson thinks Howard is entitled to an evidentiary hearing.

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