By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
Juan Toribio could see signs of trouble the first day he walked into the cafeteria in Pueblo. They were gang signs, flashed from table to table among the baby-faced convicts of Colorado's Youthful Offender System as they tucked into their meatloaf and cheese mac.
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."
In 1997, Toribio was convicted of assault and menacing in El Paso County. At age seventeen he was facing a nine-year sentence in adult prison. The sentence was suspended, conditional on Toribio's completing three years in YOS -- the state's experimental corrections program for violent teens who seem destined for a lifelong diet of prison chow.
The program is no picnic. Gangbangers and other felons as young as fourteen, prosecuted as adults for crimes ranging from theft to manslaughter, must endure four to six weeks of a grueling, highly regimented boot camp. That's followed by months of special classes and counseling sessions designed to change criminal behavior, then up to a year of intensive supervision in community corrections before release. Slipping up at any stage -- fighting, gang activity, a dirty drug test, failure to get a job and keep it -- could mean a trip back to boot camp or a one-way ticket to the adult prison system.
Toribio knew the program was his last chance to turn his life around; he plunged into YOS like a Hindu into the Ganges. Last year he'd made it to a Denver halfway house, on the brink of a return to the street under community supervision, before his drinking problem began to catch up with him. Recognizing that his previous brushes with the law had occurred while he was intoxicated, he begged to be put on Antabuse. The first time he fell off the wagon, he reported himself.
"I've never seen a young man do so much to benefit from the system," says Toribio's attorney, Noreen Simpson, an El Paso County deputy public defender. "This is a kid who really worked hard to make the program work for him."
Last fall Toribio was sent back to boot camp for "remediation" as punishment for his drinking. No big deal, he thought, but what he saw alarmed him. A few months earlier, YOS had relocated from Denver to a new campus on the grounds of the state hospital in Pueblo, with considerable shakeup in staff and leadership. In many ways, it no longer seemed like the same program.
In Denver, the young offenders -- known as "residents," not inmates -- had been encouraged to confront each other over their bad behavior in an effort to establish a "positive peer culture." Youth counselors had worked closely with the teens on their problems and labored to open lines of communication. By contrast, many of the Pueblo staffers were transfers from adult prisons in the Department of Corrections who seemed eager to report the "inmates" for the slightest infraction. And some of the YOS residents, Toribio noted, were flashing gang signs in the cafeteria and muttering about what they would do to anyone who snitched on them.
"It was all wrong," Toribio says. "There was no confrontation going on, nobody helping each other out. It was either you were snitching or not snitching. And the guards weren't trying to help, either. They'd just write you up right away."
Toribio took stock of his fellow transgressors in boot camp, clad in baggy yellow jumpsuits, and saw more problems. "It used to take a lot to get someone sent to remediation," he explains. "They were sending people back for things that could have been handled other ways -- like cussing at staff or not doing your homework. They were choosing out people who cussed at staff, yet there were staff who cussed at us all the time. People were telling me YOS was all messed up and they'd rather be in prison."
Toribio made it through his remediation and was returned to community supervision in Denver. Within a few weeks, though, he was back in a cell -- and on his way to adult prison. He'd shown up at his group home after curfew one night, sick from a combination of beer and Antabuse. Questioned by staff, he quickly became belligerent.
"They told me I was a screwup," he recalls. "I said, 'I'm telling you guys that I have problems, and you don't want to help me out.' I started getting mad. I said, 'Fuck parole. Fuck you. This program's a bunch of shit.'"
Toribio spent the next four months in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in Pueblo, followed by another five months in a county jail, awaiting a judge's decision approving his revocation from YOS. He now must serve the rest of his nine-year adult sentence. He's become yet another casualty of YOS, his disillusionment shared not only by growing numbers of teens who've failed the program but by former staffers and administrators who say that the program itself has failed.
Since the disastrous move to Pueblo in the summer of 1998, YOS has been awash in turnover and turmoil. The program has lost more than 80 percent of its former staff and is now on its fourth director in fourteen months. There were six escapes among its 200 residents in the first six months of operation on the new campus, along with a sharp increase in fights, alleged gang activity and physical confrontations with staff. The rate of revocations to adult prison has doubled. And the program's apparent shift in direction, from a focus on rehabilitation to dispatching "screwups," has been harshly criticized by its own creators.
"The program elements have been reduced to almost a token approach," says Richard Swanson, a psychologist who was the principal author of the program. "I turned in my resignation after I lost several battles."
"It would be a shame if that program, which was on the cutting edge of youth corrections, should fail," says Regis Groff, the director of YOS for its first four years of operation -- and who, like Swanson, left a few months after the move to Pueblo. "If it fails, as far as I'm concerned, it's because the Department of Corrections just doesn't have what it takes to make it work."
Forged out of Denver's notorious "Summer of Violence" in 1993, YOS was a bold new approach to combating drive-by shootings and bloody carjackings. Cobbled from successful youth programs in other states, the idea was to offer young felons a shape-up-or-ship-out last chance rather than simply damning them to long sentences in the adult system. It was a creature of the Colorado General Assembly, which hammered out legislation authorizing the program during a special session called by Governor Roy Romer and ordered skeptical prison officials to get cracking.
By Department of Corrections standards, YOS was not only innovative -- emphasizing education, discipline, teamwork and vocational training rather than punishment, punishment and more punishment -- but incredibly expensive. Indeed, its average cost per resident of around $110 per day is nearly double that of adult inmates in the DOC, making it one of the most costly corrections programs in the country. But if enough YOS graduates stayed out of prison, its supporters argued, that would more than justify the cost. Early results were encouraging, and the program soon began to attract national attention ("The Sins of Youth," July 18, 1996).
Through its first four years, YOS boasted a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent -- 75 percent lower than that of the adult prison system. (A recent legislative audit disputed that claim, but corrections officials stand by it.) "We were clearly on the right track," says Swanson. "The last year in Denver, we had finally got everything up and going. But then we moved to Pueblo, and that put people from the adult side of DOC in charge of it."
Swanson, Groff and other former staffers say YOS took a turn for the worse as the DOC began to exert more direct control over what had been, up to that point, a separate fiefdom. Although relocating to Pueblo had been contemplated for some time in order to expand the program, the move was accompanied by a number of startling policy shifts by DOC headquarters, including a key decision to lower educational and training qualifications for numerous staff positions. That allowed dozens of vacancies to be filled by correctional officers who'd never worked with juveniles before.
"It was a culture clash," Swanson says. "The idea of working with kids in a way that makes a difference is so alien to the average DOC person."
But corrections officials insist that after an admittedly rocky start, YOS is now operating as intended in Pueblo. "We knew it was going to be difficult bringing this program from Denver to Pueblo," says DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough. "We knew we were going to have some pains, but they were greater than anticipated. I can tell you, though, that the department is committed to this program."
"My staff endured a difficult fourteen months," adds Brian Gomez, the current director of YOS. "They lost administration and they were beat up in the media. But they're wide open to work as a team now."
Yet interviews with current and former YOS employees and youths who are serving time in Pueblo or have recently been revoked, as well as their parents, attorneys and other interested parties, paint a fairly dismal picture of a once-promising enterprise. Over the past year, the critics say, YOS has suffered not only a clash of cultures but a fundamental change in philosophy.
Staffers who made the move from Denver to Pueblo -- many of whom requested anonymity, citing fear of retaliation -- say they were greeted with hostility and suspicion by DOC regulars, branded as "chocolate hearts" who melt with compassion for teenage hoods and, in some cases, harassed into giving up their jobs. Others talk about watered-down programs and devalued educational offerings despite signs on campus proclaiming, "Around here we consider school sacred."
Counselors and therapists describe how inexperienced DOC transfers, fresh from a mere two weeks of training in the YOS approach, would provoke residents into outbursts rather than teach them how to control their anger. Youths diagnosed with mental illnesses sometimes spent months in isolation awaiting revocation hearings, they say, a form of slow torture as severe as anything the adult system can dish out.
In fact, the program's harshest critics believe that what the DOC has created in Pueblo, out of perverse design or ineptitude, is little more than a junior-varsity, overpriced version of an adult prison. They point to a string of administrative decisions, from the initial staffing maneuver to the recent arrival of sixty adult female prisoners temporarily assigned to empty beds on campus, as proof that the DOC is reallocating YOS resources and staff contrary to what the legislature intended.
"Some of the line staff who came over from DOC really care for the kids and are very dedicated," says Elizabeth Penland, a psychologist who recently resigned from YOS after what she describes as "unfair and hostile treatment" from her superiors. "I blame administration for their lack of support and the deterioration of the program."
The problems within YOS come on the heels of a state investigation into widespread abuses within the Division of Youth Corrections, the subject of a scathing legislative audit last winter. It's enough to make one question the state's commitment to salvaging young people caught up in a cycle of violence, drugs and prison.
Ironically, youth crime has dropped significantly in Colorado in recent years, as it has across the country. Despite high-profile horrors such as the Columbine shootings, drive-bys are no longer the stuff of nightly newscasts and hot-button political posturing. That may help explain why, six years after all of the outraged speeches over the Summer of Violence, the Youthful Offender System has evolved into something quite different from what its framers envisioned.
"What really astounds me," says Sam Williams, a former state lawmaker who voted for the YOS program and served briefly as its acting director last year, "is that the legislature lets the DOC carry on like they're doing with this program."
For its first four years, YOS operated out of a warren of offices, classrooms and cellblocks in the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center (DRDC), the processing center for state prisoners on Smith Road. The space was cramped, cheerless and not always manageable, but former staffers say they saw remarkable things happen there.
In the dreary classrooms, hulking homeboys who'd terrorized entire neighborhoods struggled valiantly to learn their ABCs and how to make correct change for a dollar. Others worked on nabbing their high school diplomas or took college-level courses.
Three times a week, the residents gathered in small circles for GGI -- "guided group interaction," encounter sessions in which streetwise cholos lit into each other for exhibiting "thinking errors," strutting a "gangsta mentality" or failing to clean the toilets, thereby jeopardizing the team's hopes of hosting a Coke-and-pizza party in their pod.
Career delinquents with the worst possible resumés -- absent or abusive parents, siblings in prison, dope habits and gang ties, etc., etc. -- gradually swelled with pride as they learned to follow the rules and earn privileges and status, progressing from yellow clown suits to khaki uniforms to the maroon polo shirts that marked those who were on their way back to society.
"Considering that we were working inside a maximum-security prison, it was unbelievable the program that we were running," says Jennie Kinsfather, who joined the YOS staff in 1996.
Unlike the average correctional officer, YOS staffers were required to have a bachelor's degree and prior experience working with juveniles. They were also expected to have an unusual amount of interaction with the offenders, serving as role models, mentors and counselors as well as guards. And the offenders were enlisted to help police each other, through "positive peer culture" and other innovations that would never be taken seriously in a snitch-conscious adult prison.
In theory, the move to Pueblo was supposed to enhance YOS's unique features. Space was so tight at DRDC that dozens of offenders had to be sent to contract facilities out of state -- including the program's handful of females, who completed boot camp in Denver but received most of their training elsewhere. Relocating to some empty buildings on the grounds of the state hospital complex would allow for an expanded program in a more open, campus-like setting.
But as the much-delayed move inched closer, it became apparent that the plan had serious drawbacks. For one thing, YOS stood to lose many experienced staffers who were unwilling to pull up stakes and relocate. For another, the DOC hierarchy intended to waive the special staffing requirements in order to fill the anticipated vacancies with its own people, as part of an overall push to bring YOS operations into greater compliance with department standards.
"In Denver, YOS didn't have to do its own security," notes DOC spokeswoman McDonough. "It was felt that on this campus, we needed a more security-oriented approach."
Ex-director Groff contends that the DOC could have addressed its security concerns by recruiting staffers who had both corrections experience and prior contact with juveniles. "I told the central office that to the extent that we didn't take transfers, the better off we'd be," he says. "They ignored us."
Within the DOC, Pueblo is considered a choice work assignment -- it beats Ordway, for example, or Limon. Consequently, YOS vacancies were rapidly filled by tight-knit factions of DOC employees from various adult prisons whose commitment to working in youth corrections was newly minted. Since the transfers brought their seniority with them, those staffers who did relocate from Denver quickly found themselves not only outmanned but outranked.
"All the high-ranking positions were filled by people new to YOS," says Swanson, who argued strenuously against the transfers. "Our staff from Denver ended up on the midnight shift, when there was no opportunity to work with the kids."
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."
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.
"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."
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."
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."
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.
"You are saying that the only role of the trial court is to impose the sentence," Jackson tells prosecutor Sergei Thomas. "How do I know he's had the right to confront and cross-examine adversarial witnesses?"
Thomas protests that the judge is "interfering with the legislative function." Jackson tries to find guidance in the statute, the case law and the DOC's own administrative regulations, all of which contradict one another regarding the process of sending a YOS washout to prison. After two hours of wrangling with Thomas and public defender Lester Nieves, Jackson decides witnesses should be called. When Thomas says he's not prepared to call witnesses, the judge denies the motion to revoke.
Watching from the gallery, Rhonda Trullinger beams with relief. A former teacher at the Division of Youth Corrections' Lookout Mountain complex, Trullinger has served as an advocate for Howard for the past three years. When she first met him, Howard was already a veteran of the juvenile system, dating back to his involvement in a gang slaying at thirteen. He had been labeled "uneducatable" and didn't even know his alphabet. Trullinger worked with him on his learning disabilities and continued to track him as he drifted in and out of juvie.
"When he ended up in YOS, I thought he finally had a chance," Trullinger says. "He made a huge turnaround. But then, thirty days before he was set to hit the streets, it all went to hell. There's staff there that don't care and don't know how to help these kids. The confrontation he had with a staff member was totally provoked."
For today, at least, Howard has beaten the odds. It's a remarkable victory, particularly since the number of revocations from YOS has increased dramatically in recent months.
During its first four years, a total of 51 offenders were revoked from the program. (Many of those were voluntary; due to sentencing glitches, several of the early arrivals were facing more time in YOS than they were in the adult system and demanded to be revoked.) In the first twelve months in Pueblo, YOS revoked another 24 residents -- twice the previous rate.
There appear to be several reasons for the increase. Last year's escapes certainly boosted the total. A recent legislative audit suggests that YOS has also accepted people who are supposed to be excluded from the program, including a few sex offenders and chronically mentally ill (CMI) teens. (At least a third of the residents are receiving some form of psychiatric treatment or medication.) The YOS critics, though, say that the chief reason for the rise in revocations is the current administration's mishandling of the program.
"In the past, revocation was the absolute last move," says one staffer. "Now they're revoking them for alcohol problems or high-school-type behavior, not criminal issues."
"The system can't save them all, obviously," says Sam Williams. "But it's not being allowed to work. People want to show it isn't working, and revocations are an easy way to do that."
Elizabeth Penland says she was told that the residents who displayed emotional or mental problems were "high-resource consumers" who should be sent to prison if they couldn't "get it together." But in many cases, the psychologist explains, the problem teens hadn't received the training in anger management and other assistance they were supposed to get from YOS, let alone the intensive therapy called for in their evaluation reports.
"I think they wanted to weed out the kids who were the most difficult," she says. "But when you don't have a qualified, intact program, you're going to have more kids having problems."
Public defender Noreen Simpson, who has been involved in four revocation cases in recent months, agrees. "When they're supposed to be released in the community, they don't have any of the tools they should have," she says. "They're the same knuckleheads they were when they started out. It looks to me like YOS is realizing they can't release these kids because they didn't do their job, so they have to revoke them."
Antoinette Renee Bustamante had been in YOS less than six months when she was put into an isolation cell last spring pending revocation. She'd been sent into the program with an adult sentence for assault of 10-32 years hanging over her head; at seventeen, she had joined an older girl in attempting to steal a car from a man. The man was stabbed and strangled.
After boot camp, Bustamante was placed in a YOS unit with the seven other girls in the program. She was the outsider; the others had served time together out of state before the move to Pueblo. She had a series of conflicts with one girl in particular, she says, and was written up frequently for minor infractions such as talking in line.
"I went to staff about the problems I was having, and they told me, 'Just do your time,'" she says, sitting behind glass in a jail in Adams County, awaiting her transfer to Cañon City. "That's not how it's supposed to go in YOS. You're supposed to be able to confront your peers, you know?"
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.
"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."
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."
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."