Former guard Duane Coleman got to go home. Embattled director Brian Gomez got a new job. And the teenage girls of Colorado's Youthful Offender System got a change of scenery -- though whether the move will help salvage the troubled program remains unclear.
Personnel changes and revamping seem to be the order of the day at YOS, the state's costly prison for adolescent felons. The innovative program has been mired in controversy ever since the Department of Corrections moved its base of operations from Denver to Pueblo in 1998. Over the past two years, several of YOS's female residents (who are outnumbered by males forty to one) have claimed to have been raped or coerced into sexual relationships with guards or male prisoners ("Prisoners of Sex," March 6). An investigation has led to the firing and prosecution of several corrections officers, as well as calls for a legislative inquiry into how the program is operated.
Two months ago, YOS director Gomez told Westword, "I feel comfortable that the situation was dealt with." But yet another investigation into alleged staff misconduct came on the heels of his remarks -- and last month, after four years at the turbulent helm of YOS, Gomez was transferred to a senior position in DOC's Division of Adult Parole and Community Corrections. His replacement is Juanita Novak, a veteran administrator of adult prisons.
Staff scandals at YOS are no longer Gomez's concern -- or that of Duane Coleman, for that matter. For months, the forty-year-old ex-drill instructor has been living with the accusation that he sexually assaulted eighteen-year-old YOS resident Darlene Sandoval in 2001. On April 10, it took a Pueblo jury just fifteen minutes to acquit him of all charges.
Coleman is one of five YOS guards who've been fired in the past eighteen months over alleged incidents of sexual misconduct with residents. Three of the five have since pleaded guilty to felony charges; a fourth was never charged. Coleman denied any wrongdoing and refused to take a plea bargain.
At his trial, both Sandoval and her former YOS roommate, Angel Castro, testified that Coleman came into their room one summer night and raped Sandoval while Castro listened in the upper bunk. But the alleged assault wasn't reported for weeks, and a subsequent DOC investigation failed to turn up any physical evidence to support the girls' accounts.
Coleman's attorney, Joe Koncilja, pointed out numerous inconsistencies in their testimony and blasted the shoddiness of the DOC's investigation. "Nobody wants to see girls get brutalized or see guards in this circumstance," he said. "The DOC had a responsibility to protect both of them, and it failed."
In his closing argument, Koncilja went further, describing Sandoval and Castro as "the sorority from hell" -- "connivers" who'd concocted their accusation against a much-hated drill instructor. (Castro, the first girl to report the sexual-misconduct allegations to authorities, also claimed to have been assaulted by another guard, Gary Neal; Neal is now serving eighteen months after pleading guilty to sexual conduct inside a prison.) The defense attorney characterized the prosecution's theory of what happened as an "amorous crime" rather than a "cold-blooded rape" -- then debunked the idea that his client could feel amorous toward Sandoval, a heavyset Hispanic girl, when there was a lighter, more attractive, supposedly more willing female resident in the next room. He also found great significance in Sandoval's admission that Coleman hadn't fondled her breasts.
"When have you heard of an amorous event where the breasts would not be involved?" Koncilja asked the jury of nine women and three men. "Does that sound logical to you? [The assault] didn't happen. And if you think maybe it did, that's not good enough."
Prosecutor Rick Mattoon shot back that Koncilja's arguments were "offensive," that "rape is rape." But he also acknowledged that his case hinged on the credibility of two convicted felons. After almost three days of testimony, it didn't take the jury long to decide that they didn't believe Castro and Sandoval.
Coleman is understandably relieved by the verdict -- and frustrated with his former employers. "This has been a very traumatic and overwhelming experience for the last two years," he says. "It has financially and emotionally almost ruined my family. It never dawned on me an allegation like that could go so far and cause so much damage."
Coleman blames past administrative decisions, such as assigning all-male staff to work the female wing, for putting both officers and residents at risk. "The staff manages the program, but they don't run it," he says. "They're vulnerable to physical attacks, false accusations -- all kinds of things."
His own case would never have gone to trial, he suggests, if the DOC had done a proper investigation rather than eagerly lumping him in with Neal and others who'd been caught behaving badly. "I thought I had all of DOC behind me, but they'd rather cut their losses," he says. "It was a rush to judgment."
Although Coleman is now clear of criminal charges, two other former residents of the program have accused him of making sexual advances toward them. Coleman says the two are just "jumping on the bandwagon," possibly with the idea of filing lawsuits against the state. "They want to see their names in the paper," he says. "There's no validity to any of those allegations."
Coleman isn't sure what he will do next, but he knows it won't be a job in corrections. "I will never put myself in an environment where I can be accused like that again," he says. "I thought I was making a difference. I've since learned that you can't fix everything. Some people can't be fixed."
Recently the DOC has taken a few drastic steps to try to fix its YOS problems -- and possibly save the program, which is up for sunset review in the state legislature next year. Shortly before Gomez left, the DOC brass announced that the six girls currently in the program would be moved to a special unit at an adult women's prison in Cañon City. Whether the agency would try to provide the girls with the special YOS regimen of discipline and education within the confines of that prison or eventually move them to an all-girl contract facility in another state (the process that YOS girls went through before the program relocated to Pueblo) has not been decided.
DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan says the move is in response to a recommendation made in an audit of YOS issued last November by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. Noting the history of assaults, safety issues and a lack of "gender-specific programming" for the small female population, the report urged the DOC to move the girls.
But in February, Gomez denied that there were any plans to move the girls, insisting that improvements in security measures, such as adding cameras and female staff to the girls' wing, had addressed the safety problems. And a move to an adult prison is hardly what the auditors had in mind: Another section of the same report chided administrators for permitting too much contact between the adolescent residents and adult prisoners housed on the grounds, in violation of the program's statutory requirements that participants be housed separately "and not brought into daily physical contact with adult inmates."
Although Morgan says the move has been in the works for some time, recent events may have hastened the girls' departure. The latest investigation of alleged staff misconduct has led to the placement of two guards, Trenton Lutz and Miranda Smith, on paid administrative leave. Sources say the accusations against them have to do with female residents being plied with alcohol, nude pictures being taken, and some pictures later turning up in residents' rooms.
If the accusations are true, then the sexual-misconduct problems within YOS, which Westword first reported on in 1999, are still awaiting a permanent fix. Based in part on those problems, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a network of more than eighty state activist organizations, has recently lobbied the state legislature to conduct an investigation into "the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct against women in detention in Colorado."
For related stories please see Crime and Punishment
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.