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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.

Penland says she complained frequently about the long delays in the revocation process and the possible mental deterioration of youths put in isolation for months.

Gomez responds that he's working on ways to speed up the process and make the RFP experience more humane. "That type of environment for adolescents is extreme," he notes. "We've tried to provide recreational services, trips to the gymnasium, mental-health and religious services. I've increased the staff in that unit at all times."

But Toribio says he was lucky to get even an hour out of the cell each day during his four months of lockdown last spring. "You just sit there and look at the wall," he says. "Some of us were going crazy, just talking to ourselves and looking at the wall. You laugh at dumb things. Try to picture things. Hope that something will happen."

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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"McPrison"
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."

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The image of damaged adolescents confined to their cells -- locked down 23 hours a day, festering, just marking time until their next go at the streets -- probably wasn't what lawmakers had in mind when they created the Youthful Offender System. Yet a few months ago, despite a very critical audit and behind-the-scenes lobbying by former administrators, the legislature renewed the program for another five years, with Senator Dottie Wham, a longtime supporter of YOS, leading the charge. (Wham did not respond to requests for comment.)

To many former staffers, the program now seems like an opportunity betrayed, a success story gone sour. "There were so many people who couldn't break that DOC mentality to give this program a chance," says Jennie Kinsfather. "It breaks my heart that people are so set on having a youth prison. These kids are going to get out, and they're going to be worse."

Regis Groff says he still runs into YOS graduates on the streets of Denver, kids who are now successfully employed or going to school -- a bittersweet reminder of the way things were before the move to Pueblo. "The program was working, man," he says. "YOS got a raw deal. Nobody benefits if that program doesn't work."

One staff member who still works in YOS has his own theory about the way things went down. "We were showing them that you can do rehabilitation and be successful," he says. "Something like that, well, that's going to destroy the Department of Corrections. They don't like to hear that."

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