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.

Bustamante says she was on medication for depression and experiencing roller-coaster mood swings. Sometimes, she admits, "I let my anger get the best of me." Last February she slit her wrists with a razor blade. She then signed a contract stating that she would not fight or attempt to hurt herself. A few weeks later, she says, she broke up a fight between two boys in the cafeteria and was returned to boot camp. She was back only a day when an employee found bruises on her chest, the result of an earlier fight with another girl.

"I didn't see any reason to report it," Bustamante says. "I'd been telling them about my problems with this girl, and I didn't want to be snitching."

But the evidence of the old fight, along with an argument with another staffer, was enough to hustle Bustamante out of the program she was just starting to learn.

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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How a private prison brought jobs -- and violence, corruption and scandal -- to Burlington.
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By Alan Prendergast

"The Insiders,"
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"I feel I didn't get half the chance other people did there," she says. "There was one kid who got in eight fights before he was revoked. I knew a girl that was having sex with the boys, and all she got was sexual misconduct. You can get revoked for that, but she wasn't. But they told me I was a convict, and I belonged in DOC."

Bustamante brushes back her hair with her left hand. Tattooed on her knuckles are the letters CMG, short for Crenshaw Mafia Gangstas. It's an old tattoo, but one that will no doubt attract attention for years to come as she vanishes into the adult system. "I'm kind of glad I'm not in YOS," she says. "They have a lot of stuff they need to take care of."

The revocation procedure is similar to a probation revocation in the adult system. But someone losing his probation has a right to a hearing within thirty days; the YOS process can take up to a year. Bustamante spent close to six months in solitary confinement before her hearing. Another recent case, Sidney Cooley, was in lockdown even longer.

Cooley has a long history of juvenile burglary convictions, suicide attempts and psychiatric treatment; his mother, Cynthia Cureton, says he's been in trouble with the law since the age of ten. Yet he was thriving in YOS, earning leadership status and a box full of track-and-field medals, until a fight last February with a resident who called him a snitch. Although the other boy would later admit that he was the aggressor in the incident, Cooley was sent to "RFP" -- Removal From Population.

"They kept my son in lockdown, refused his requests to call his attorney and wouldn't even let him get a haircut," says Cureton, a Philadelphia police investigator. "When I finally was allowed to see him, his hair was down his back like a wolfman. We are light-complexioned black people, but my son's hands were white. He had not seen the light of day for seven months. They told me that this was procedure, that they were waiting to get a court date."

Cureton says that Cooley's entire program team urged against his revocation but that Gomez overrode their decision. (Gomez says it's the only occasion he has done that.)

"When they told me they were going to revoke him, I found out he wasn't getting his medication," Cureton says. "He'd been in YOS almost four years, and there was no treatment plan. Mr. Gomez told me, 'You need to understand that these kids need to pay their debt to society.' I told him, 'Those kids aren't in there to pay a debt. They're in there to be rehabilitated.'"

Two weeks ago, an El Paso County judge denied YOS's attempt to send Cooley to prison. He was ordered returned to the program.

Many of the YOS washouts agreed to the long adult sentences in their plea bargains because their attorneys told them how hard it was to get revoked from YOS. Now they're facing serious time for foulups as simple as mouthing off to a staff member or trying to conceal that they'd been beaten up by someone. One recent dropout, seventeen-year-old Gregory Barnes, was sent to YOS for biting a corrections officer during a scuffle in a juvenile facility. After several fights and suicide attempts while in YOS, he's now facing ten years in prison for that one bite.

"They said he provoked people to beat him up and that's how he got kicked out," says Barnes's mother, Debra Harper. "I don't think it would have mattered what was wrong with Greg. They just wanted him out of the program."

Staffers who speak up for the problem kids aren't exactly welcome, either. Penland says she decided to quit her position as a staff psychologist shortly after testifying at a revocation hearing in Alamosa last summer. Her superiors considered her testimony entirely too sympathetic to the teen they were trying to revoke.

"They threatened to turn me over to my licensing bureau because I was going 'outside my area of competence,'" she says. "I was told that if I was ever subpoenaed again, I was just to say that I supported DOC, regardless of my opinion. In other words, I was supposed to commit perjury. It was a very intimidating meeting."

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