Prisoners of Sex

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

Judge Perricone had heard more than enough. He ordered that the rest of Angel Castro's sentence be served in a community corrections program, far from YOS.

Over the next few months, the DOC fired Steve Chavez, Gary Neal, Duane Coleman and Dwayne Evans. If the allegations against them could be proved in court, they faced the possibility of months behind bars.

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

Several of the girls they'd allegedly used were looking at revocation hearings that could land them in prison for years, even decades.

Prosecuting sexual misconduct within a prison is tough, concedes Rick Mattoon, the chief trial deputy district attorney in Pueblo County. "These girls are all convicted felons, so there is an underlying credibility issue," he notes. "Some of these men were saying that these girls were coming on to them, trying to take advantage. But all the same, the men had the ability to stop it."

Last year, facing charges of sexual assault, Chavez and Neal both pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of sexual conduct inside a penal institution. They both received sentences of eighteen months in the county jail and must register as sex offenders upon their release. When questioned by investigators, Chavez admitted having sex with two female residents; he made a tearful expression of remorse in court. Neal, too, told the judge that he'd made a terrible "mistake." The pair did not respond to requests for interviews.

Coleman was charged with sexual assault and sexual conduct inside a penal institution for the alleged incident involving Castro's roommate. He has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled for next month. He, too, did not respond to an interview request.

Evans has not been charged in the investigation. (He could not be reached for comment for this story.) According to Mattoon, Carsen-Tate's story about her alleged relationship with the sergeant changed over time. "The victims in the cases we pursued were cooperative," he explains. "The one we didn't, the victim eventually said he'd done it, but at a point where it made her credibility worse."

Last spring, investigators built a case against a fifth guard, 35-year-old Alicia Bramall, who'd been visiting a YOS parolee in Pueblo and receiving calls at his residence from another male who was still in the program. Bramall was fired. In December she pleaded guilty to one count of sexual conduct inside a penal institution; because her relationships with the two males were consensual, with no evidence that she'd used her position to extract favors, she received probation.

So many cases at once puzzled Mattoon, but he says he's had no reports since of misconduct by other employees. "I certainly have questions about how they chose to staff the place," he says. "It just seemed to be a recipe for disaster, to staff the female residence with men and to put women working with the males."

Gomez says that at least one female staffer is now assigned to the female wing at all times. YOS has also placed cameras in hallways, added locks and beefed up staff training in "the pro-social values of working with mixed-gender populations," all in an effort to curtail the rampant fraternizing that went on. But some YOS veterans scoff at the new procedures, saying sexual contact is unavoidable in a place where a handful of girls are surrounded by scores of males -- including some of the guards -- who want to get at them.

"The camera can't see everything," says Carsen-Tate. "The staff can still come into our rooms all they want; the guys can still sneak in there. The locks? I can open them up with the end of a pair of safety glasses. Where there's a will, there's a way."

Carsen-Tate says that some of the efforts to increase security, such as replacing the adult female prisoners who worked on the grounds with adult male prisoners, just made things worse. At the time she was pulled from the program in late 2001, Carsen-Tate had several letters in her possession from male prisoners.

"You got all those males, and only four or five females? Come on," she says. "Half those men have nothing but a life sentence, and they're just horny dogs. And the men that's working there have no married life. Hell, there's pussy right there, so they're going to take advantage of it."

According to Gomez, there are currently no adult prisoners of either sex on YOS grounds. He maintains that he's unaware of any harassment of female residents before or after the misconduct investigation and insists that the "culture" within YOS remains a healthy one. "You always have concerns if it's a pro-social environment for the residents," he says. "But statutorily, we're mandated to have the females there."

Gomez's views on the soundness of the program weren't shared by the judges presiding over the revocation hearings, several of whom spurned efforts to ship the girls off to adult prison. The biggest battle was over what to do with the program's bad Pene, who kept turning up in the most unlikely places.

A second attempt to revoke Carsen-Tate began late in 2001; this time Gomez approved the move. That set up a year-long battle in which YOS and Arapahoe County prosecutors argued that Carsen-Tate should serve her entire 32-year prison sentence, while her attorney, Jason Meade, tried to establish that whatever violations his client had committed in the program were overshadowed by the environment of sexual coercion, in which savvy girls did what was necessary to survive.

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