Prisoners of Sex

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

This tactic has bewildered and incensed judges presiding over the revocation hearings, most of whom have flatly rejected the notion that YOS's teenage bad girls are as much to blame for the sexual misconduct as the adult guards who were supervising them. Several have expressed their reluctance to return the girls to YOS or to send them to adult prison for engaging in relationships that were, at best, coercive. They have openly questioned whether YOS has taken any effective steps to protect its female prisoners or is simply trying to exact revenge on them for exposing the program's pimply flanks. The judge in Angel Castro's case, Arapahoe County Judge Gaspar Perricone, even ripped into YOS director Brian Gomez for what he considered an "appalling" lack of security.

"The court believes, from the testimony, that the problem must still exist in that facility," Perricone said. "I cannot send her back to a place where she's subject to further sexual assault and harassment by inmates and staff.... After hearing the testimony, it appeared to me that the youth services -- whatever this organization is -- that Mr. Gomez is running a private brothel for the benefit of his staff."

Gomez, who's been in charge of YOS since 1999, has tried to portray the entire affair as a chain of unfortunate, isolated events involving rogue employees. "I have 202 hardworking, dedicated staff," he says. "I had four employees who were inappropriate and didn't follow the rules. I feel comfortable that the situation was dealt with."

Yet the pattern of sexual exploitation may say more about the real culture of YOS, and how far it has strayed from the discipline-and-education approach of its founders, than DOC officials care to admit. For the girls involved, their experience has been a lesson in degradation and hypocrisy. How could these men claim to be mentors and counselors when they couldn't keep their pants zipped?

But several of them never got a chance to tell the judge what they thought. They've never spoken publicly about what they went through -- until now.

The girls' stories aren't always consistent; as with most cases involving sex in prison, there's more than one version of what occurred. But many crucial details of their accounts have been confirmed by the official investigation and subsequent court proceedings.

"At YOS, all [the administration] ever did was cover it up," says former resident Jessica Jiron. "I knew they'd never believe me if I told them what happened to me. The staff were supposed to be role models, but they never listened. It seemed like they were just there to get their paychecks."


After her first few days of boot camp in the fall of 1999, Pene Carsen-Tate had already recognized several familiar faces in YOS. There were boys from her old neighborhood, boys she'd met in elementary and middle school. Boys who used to drop by her mama's house for a meal. Hell, there were boys in that place she'd hooked up with before.

Carsen-Tate grew up in Montbello, mostly -- which, in her experience, wasn't the cool burb some people might think, all parks and barbecues and like that. The place had its war zones, riddled with crack and gangs. "A lot of people from the east side and Park Hill look at Montbello and say, 'Those are uppity middle-class kids; they think they're better,'" she explains. "So we have to fight them to prove we are not. People get hurt. People get jacked. We have to prove to ourselves we're not punks, so we're constantly doing something, you know?"

At sixteen, Carsen-Tate had already seen more of life's dark corners than many of the adult corrections officers assigned to YOS. Her file documented a long history of mental and emotional problems -- childhood physical and sexual abuse, depression, bulimia, self-mutilation, suicidal behavior, "sexually acting out" -- and involvement in one horrific, senseless crime.

Her family lost control of Carsen-Tate long before she wound up in Pueblo. "I couldn't do nothing with her," says her mother, Terri Tate-Smallwood. "She'd run away from home and I'd go find her. I asked social services if there was a home I could put her in until she could get her direction straight, and they said there was nothing they could do because she'd never been in trouble with the police."

Between the ages of six and nine, Pene was molested by a male relative. When the girl was thirteen, her mother sent her to live with other family members in Georgia, where a cousin tried to have sex with her. Carsen-Tate says she isn't sure how all this might have contributed to her wild adolescence, but various therapists have suggested a connection.

"People say that I was just used for men's pleasures," she says. "They say that's how I see myself, that I think that's all I'm good for. It's probably something I don't want to admit."

In 1998, Carsen-Tate was living with her twenty-year-old cousin, Natalie Murdock, who was involved in ongoing domestic battles involving fist and knife fights with her husband, Arthur. That summer, Natalie talked repeatedly about killing Arthur, who'd been arrested after one fight and then moved out. Carsen-Tate brought a recently acquired boyfriend, Terrence Wilder -- a troubled seventeen-year-old known as the "Iceman" because of his supposed expertise as a hit man -- into the discussions.

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