Prisoners of Sex

Colorado's costly program for violent teens was supposed to turn these girls around. Instead, they got turned out.

"People don't understand that you can't always be telling staff what's going on," Castro says. "I didn't want to tell anybody that I was raped, you know what I'm saying? I really didn't. I was so scared."


Forged out of Denver's so-called "Summer of Violence" in 1993, YOS was a bold approach to a rising tide of youth crime. The core idea, hammered out in a special session of the Colorado Legislature called by then-governor Roy Romer, was to fashion a hybrid program -- tougher than juvenile corrections, but insulated from the harsh realities of adult prison -- that stressed discipline, education and responsibility.

As originally conceived, YOS would require young offenders -- known as "residents," not inmates -- to earn privileges and status through hard work and academic achievement. Rival gang kids would be expected to work together and confront each other over their bad behavior, establishing a "positive peer culture." Trained youth counselors would serve as role models and open up lines of communication.

Nothing quite like it existed anywhere. Corrections officials were wary of its experimental nature and its emphasis on rehabilitation. Other critics balked at the heavy staffing and staggering price tag; the average cost per resident -- now around $52,000 a year -- was double what it took to keep an adult prisoner in a medium-security prison, making YOS one of the most expensive corrections programs in the country. But supporters argued that if enough YOS graduates stayed out of the adult system, that would more than justify the cost.

Early results were encouraging. Through its first four years, YOS boasted a recidivism rate that was less than one-fourth of the rate in the adult prison system. But in 1998, the program was moved from its cramped quarters at the high-security Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center on Smith Road to the more expansive campus in Pueblo, and things quickly began to fall apart.

Although the move had been planned for some time, it resulted in a startling shakeup of staff, leadership and policy. More than 80 percent of the Denver staff refused to make the move or soon fled the program. Those who hung on found themselves in a demoralizing clash of cultures with corrections officers who'd transferred into plum jobs at YOS from other DOC facilities, often with little or no prior experience working with juveniles. The number of assaults, escape attempts and revocations -- residents failing the program and being shipped to adult prison -- shot up dramatically. Several YOS top administrators, including former legislator Regis Groff and psychologist Richard Swanson, the principal author of the program, resigned in disgust, publicly denouncing the DOC brass for transforming their innovation into a junior-varsity slammer.

Perhaps the most disastrous aspect of the YOS move to Pueblo, though, was the impact on its female residents. Girls hadn't been much of a factor when the program operated out of the Denver diagnostic center; the place simply didn't have room for them. The occasional female was put through boot camp alongside the boys for four to six weeks and then sent to an all-girl contract facility in another state to complete the remainder of her sentence.

One of the reasons for the move to Pueblo was to end the out-of-state placement. In theory, there would be room for the girls to have their own dormitory and lots of one-on-one attention. In practice, however, part of the building was soon handed over to male residents and male staff, and the one-on-one sessions that resulted were probably not what the administration had in mind. Other parts of the grounds that had been originally allocated to YOS, and the jobs that went with them, were soon assigned to an overflow of adult female prisoners, then to a group of adult male inmates, as the DOC made a series of dubious decisions to deal with overcrowding at other prisons.

Allegations of sexual misconduct within YOS were first reported in Westword more than three years ago ("What We Have Here...Is a Failure to Rehabilitate," December 2, 1999). The situation erupted into a major criminal investigation in late 2001, and administrators eventually acknowledged that there had been a series of "inappropriate" relationships, consensual or otherwise, between male and female residents, between residents and staff, and between YOS adolescents and adult prisoners.

One female resident was pregnant, and so was one adult prisoner; in both cases, the fathers were young males in YOS. Three girls claimed to have been sexually assaulted by male staffers, while at least three others appear to have been involved in an ongoing exchange of sexual favors for goods and services, ranging from candy and takeout hamburgers to favorable progress reports. Ultimately, at least three-quarters of the dozen or so girls who've been through YOS over the past four years have had sexual misadventures of one kind or another.

The DOC's response to this dismal revelation has been curious. On the one hand, the agency has fired five corrections officers, including one woman; four of them have since been charged criminally in connection with YOS-related incidents. But the DOC has also gone after several female residents in court, seeking to revoke them and impose their full adult prison sentences -- arguing, in effect, that it takes two to tango.

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