Prisoners of Sex

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

Carsen-Tate says many of the charges were overblown and that she was trying her best to get an education and complete the program. The "threats" complaint, for example, stemmed from asking a female staffer why the slaying of a police officer would "get you more time" than killing somebody else; the staffer regarded the inquiry as a personal threat.

"You can get written up for damn near anything," Carsen-Tate says. "I'll admit that I could be manipulative. I had to manipulate a few COs [corrections officers] to get phone calls to my mom. There are certain things you have to do to get what you need, but it's a two-way street."

Any effort to revoke a YOS resident must go through channels before it reaches a judge. In December 2000, YOS director Gomez denied the first attempt to revoke Carsen-Tate. She did, however, spend long weeks in RFP, or Removal From Population, the program equivalent of solitary confinement.

John Johnston
Former YOS resident Pene Carsen-Tate
Former YOS resident Pene Carsen-Tate

"Instead of trying to figure out why she was doing what she was doing, all they did was lock her up in a little-ass room for a month," says Jiron. "Pene was really emotional, really suicidal at times, and that wasn't good for her."

She was also required to take birth-control pills. The official rationale was that the pills helped to regulate her period, but Carsen-Tate says it was common knowledge among staff and residents alike that she was having sex; she was tested regularly for pregnancy and venereal disease while she was in the program. Other residents say that after another girl turned up pregnant, they were required to take the pills, too -- whether they were sexually active or not.

"They made all of us take birth control," says Jiron. "They knew stuff was going on. I was pissed off about it. I wasn't having sex, and the pills made me sick. They gave us all the same kind of pill, this super-high dosage that has all these side effects and wasn't right for me at all. They made Pene take hers in the med line, in front of the nurse."

YOS director Gomez says he was "not aware" of any directive requiring female residents to be on the Pill; he denies that the program has any policy on the matter. Staff sources, though, insist the practice continues today.

Whether the staffers who wanted to revoke Carsen-Tate suspected that she was involved with one of their own isn't clear. But the strong evaluations she received from her counselor, Dwayne Evans, probably didn't hurt her case. Evans wrote a total of fourteen entries in her progress reports, all of them positive. He noted, for example, that he was counseling her on her inappropriate relationships with boys: "We talked about her contact with male residents, and she knows she has a lot of other things to focus on."

One of the things Evans wanted her to focus on, Carsen-Tate says, was Evans: "He gave me counseling on how to be a good bitch."

Her progress reports also contain some encouraging words from Duane Coleman, the man accused of sexually assaulting Angel Castro's roommate. "Followed directions," Coleman wrote. "Gave one hundred percent."

Coleman "was always hitting on me," Carsen-Tate says. He once approached her in the girls' bathroom after she emerged from the shower, she says, urging her to drop the towel.

"He's sick," she adds. "There was a bad storm one night, and all the power went out. He kept coming into our room, saying he was looking for the cookie jar. He put his hand under my sheet. I told him there was no cookie jar there for him."

She refused, she says, to give him anything close to a hundred percent.

Some girls went into YOS with the idea of getting through the program as cleanly and quickly as possible, and they managed to do it without attracting all of the attention that surrounded Pene Carsen-Tate. But that doesn't mean they escaped unscathed.

Jessica Jiron was fifteen in 1998, when Lakewood police officer Peg Halpin visited Jiron's stepsister's apartment to inquire about a theft. Jiron, a runaway who'd been drinking heavily, became belligerent, grabbed a knife and barricaded herself in a bedroom. Halpin pursued her; Jiron threatened to kill herself. It's disputed whether the knife was poised at Jiron's own throat (as she claims) or over her head, as if ready to attack (as Halpin reported); in any event, Halpin felt sufficiently threatened to shoot Jiron in the abdomen.

Jiron originally faced enough charges to put her away for most of her life, including assault on a police officer and attempted murder. She wound up with a sympathetic judge and a six-year suspended sentence for felony menacing -- suspended, that is, on condition of completing three years in YOS.

She sailed through boot camp and worked hard on her classes. She pretended not to notice the leers and taunts from the boys, the calls of yo, ho and whassup, slut. "The staff heard it," she says. "They never said anything." She knew another girl who was tormented mercilessly by the boys, called horrible names because she couldn't afford basic hygiene items; the girl eventually lost it, got into fights and was revoked to prison.

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