The Sins of Youth
In the overcrowded Colorado prison system, corrections officials face a new breed of customer: the special-needs inmate. Much as public schools are now expected to tailor programs for the diverse range of children the state educates, the Colorado Department of Corrections is under increasing pressure to accommodate the ever-expanding pool of felons the state incarcerates.
In the case of mentally ill or retarded prisoners, for whom the state has built the just-opened $20 million San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, that decision was forced on the DOC by a federal judge. For the gangbangers and other young criminals the new Youthful Offender System is attempting to rehabilitate, at a staggering cost of $39,000 per inmate per year, it was the state legislature that made the call. And with mandatory sentences part of the law-and-order landscape of the 1990s--including a growing number of life-without-parole hitches for violent offenders--the DOC today is studying whether to build a whole new kind of prison: a "geriatric" lockup for the growing number of inmates destined to grow old and feeble in the joint.
The DOC's cradle-to-grave approach to its clientele has evolved from a strange amalgam of bureaucratic pragmatism, well-meaning idealism and old-fashioned power politics. And it's costing the taxpayers plenty. Westword will examine the strange new world behind bars in a series of articles, beginning this week with "The Young and the Reckless," Alan Prendergast's look at the Youthful Offender System. That controversial Denver-based program--the first of its kind in the country--is spending lavishly in an attempt to answer a simple question: Can any amount of money (or counseling, or discipline, or education) really persuade Colorado's baby-faced criminals to go straight?
Body rigid, eyes locked straight ahead, sixteen-year-old Richard stands at the head of the khakis, waiting for the order to march to chow. Behind him is a squad of yellows, easy to spot by their freshly shaved heads, pasty looks and baggy canary jumpsuits. Two weeks ago Richard was in yellow--fresh meat, just like the rest of them--but not anymore.
Looking less like a prison guard than a hypermuscular high school gym coach, A.J. McDonald strolls down the line, inspecting the troops. He pauses beside Richard and leans toward him, as if about to whisper a secret in his ear.
"Respect," McDonald says.
"Sir!" Richard bellows, his face screwed tight in concentration. "Respect is to show honor and professional consideration to yourself, one's superiors, fellow teammates and mission accomplishments, sir!"
The poker-faced McDonald moves on to the next teenager, also dressed in khaki. "Integrity," he snaps.
"Sir!" the seventeen-year-old responds. "Integrity is the quality of absolute honesty, sir!"
If he wanted to, McDonald could continue on down the line, quizzing his men about pain ("Sir! Pain is weakness leaving your body, sir!"), discipline and loyalty. But he seems satisfied with what he's hearing, and soon the entire crew is moving on, double-file--much to Richard's relief. Although he has the answers down cold, there was a hint of panic in the rat-a-tat way he shouted out his response. And why not? The first lesson everybody learns in the Youthful Offender System--Colorado's ambitious, controversial corrections program for violent teens between the ages of fourteen and eighteen--is about consequences.
Blow your lines and you could be ordered to drop for push-ups or to crab-walk the compound. Disobey an order and you'll probably get locked down in your cell or, worse, sent back to the yellows, just another bozo in a clown suit. Commit a major, truly suicidal offense--like, say, taking a swing at McDonald, who looks like he could separate your soul from your body on the spot--and you'll be on your way to a real prison, where young men have been known to suffer worse indignities than being forced to wear yellow jumpsuits.
Every one of the 193 males and 11 females in YOS is walking the thin line between delinquency and prison. Having been prosecuted as adults for crimes ranging from theft to assault and even manslaughter, they're facing an average of ten years in the adult system--sentences that have been suspended, conditional on the inmates' completing from two to six years in YOS.
Their color-coded journey begins in a special wing of the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center (DRDC) on Smith Road, where they endure four to six weeks of browbeating, sweat-popping, gut-busting, lunch-blowing boot camp, progressing from raw recruits (yellows) to salty veterans (khaki). That's followed by several months among the maroon-shirted upper-level "residents" of the program, who attend classes and counseling sessions while still incarcerated. Finally, they must complete the toughest challenge of all: back on the streets in civvies for up to a year of intensive "community supervision" before release. Slipping up at any stage--fighting, a dirty drug test, gang activity, failure to get a job and keep it--could mean a trip back to boot camp or a ticket to Canon City.
Forged out of the political uproar that followed Denver's much-hyped "Summer of Violence" in 1993, YOS is a hybrid, highly experimental program, cobbled together from a variety of carrot-and-stick approaches to coping with juvenile violence. Nothing quite like it exists anywhere else in the country, and its progress is being closely watched by criminologists of all stripes. Conservative legislators are enthusiastic about its no-nonsense military aspects, its emphasis on teamwork and discipline, and the succeed-or-perish philosophy of the place. Liberals like the stress on education and the program's commitment to salvaging kids who might otherwise be doing hard time.
Now in its third year of operation, YOS is still too new to have established a reliable track record. So far, half a dozen young men have completed the program; only one of them has been sent to prison for committing a new crime. Overall, eleven felons have washed out of YOS at some stage and been "revoked" to prison; an equal number are currently in the crucial final phase of community supervision.
Boosters say such results, while preliminary, are encouraging. But YOS is also an expensive proposition. At an average cost of $107 a day (about $39,000 a year) for each offender, it's twice as expensive as housing an inmate at one of the DOC's medium-security penitentiaries--and plenty of questions have emerged about the program's methods, its effectiveness and its long-term viability.
Is it possible to drill chronic teenage offenders, many of them gang members, in concepts such as loyalty, discipline and respect--and make it stick? YOS operations manager Noble Wallace thinks so. Even if some of his charges are merely going through the motions, faking it--what staffers call "fronting"--Wallace is convinced the highly structured program will eventually have an impact on the soaring juvenile crime rate in Colorado.
"Staff were having a problem at first," Wallace says, "because they were thinking some of the guys--most of them--were fronting. My theory is, it doesn't matter. Because if you do it long enough, it's going to become a habit."
But old habits die hard. That, at least, is the appraisal from sixteen-year-old Richard, in between hurried bites of a sandwich in the DRDC cafeteria. "The hardest part is being serious all the time," he says. "A lot of us, we never had to be real serious. Never had to show a lot of discipline."
Richard has been in juvenile institutions three times. He wasn't impressed; hence his current stay at YOS, on charges of motor-vehicle theft, burglary and assault. "It's a lot different from juvie," he notes. "There it's more like a chill. You just kick back, sit around all day, watch TV, play cards, go to the gym, whatever. Here you got to do what you're told, or you don't get no breaks."
The khaki next to him, a convicted seventeen-year-old arsonist named Aaron, nods in agreement. (Westword agreed to publish only the first names of several YOS offenders; others consented to use of their full names.) "I'm looking at twelve years in DOC," he says. "Here I'm looking at six. It's a lot better deal, but it's also a lot harder than sitting in a cell. You don't want to screw up."
"A lot of people, they just want to throw us in prison for twelve or fourteen years," Richard says. "But some people figure we got a chance, we can still make it 'cuz we're young. So they give us a program like this. It's a real good program if you want it, but there's some people, they don't want the knowledge. Like this guy right here."
He points out a younger kid in yellow at the next table. "He was in our squad when he first came in," Richard explains. "When we were coming back from church, he got caught talking gang stuff to another individual, so he got moved down to the yellows."
And there are those, he adds, who aren't even allowed out for chow--like the three guys locked down in the first tier, their cell windows covered with newspaper. Guys who refused to get with the program. "They're on their way to prison," he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Me, if I hadn't come here, I think my life would have been nothing," says Aaron. "I would have kept on doing the same things. Now that I'm here, I'm going to get an education. I'm going to have a good life."
Richard nods. A month of vigorous physical training has made him confident, even cocky. "Right now we're really healthy, in good shape," he says. "It shows me there's a lot more I could have done with my life."
Three years ago, when Roy Romer called Regis Groff to sound him out about holding a special session of the state legislature to deal with youth violence, the senator from northeast Denver told the governor he didn't think it was a good idea.
"I thought the conservatives would posture all over the place and nothing would come out of it," Groff recalls.
It was the torrid summer of 1993, and the time was ripe for posturing. Reeling from a series of drive-by shootings of small children, the high-profile Tom Hollar murder/ carjacking and other gang-related crimes, Denver neighborhood groups were demanding tougher sanctions against underaged thugs. Going just by the body count, the Summer of Violence was no worse than any other, but juvenile arrests statewide were rising at such an alarming rate (up two-thirds over the past ten years, according to one recent survey) that Romer gave legislators and corrections officials a somewhat contradictory mission: Come up with a way of cracking down on gangs while, as Groff puts it, "taking into account their age. It just didn't make sense to write off every kid who was involved in gangbanging."
The hastily drafted legislation that created YOS was sponsored by two Republicans but championed by several leading Democrats, including Groff. The opposition was fierce: Hardliners loathed the idea of a "second last chance" for kids who, at fourteen or fifteen, already had long criminal records, while more liberal legislators argued that the program belonged in the Division of Youth Services (now known as Youth Corrections) rather than the Department of Corrections. Ultimately, the measure squeaked through the Senate by one vote, and Groff, who had already announced plans to leave the legislature, wound up as the program's first director.
The plan was to target kids involved in gang- and gun-related crimes, but not all kids and not the most serious crimes, either. Juveniles convicted of murder, rape and other sex offenses aren't eligible for YOS; neither are those with severe physical or mental problems. That still leaves a wide range of candidates, from downy-cheeked first-time offenders to street-savvy professionals whose entire families are behind bars. (One YOS resident's parental visits consist of strolling across the DRDC compound to chat with Mom in the women's prison.) But Groff concedes the program wasn't intended to be a cure-all for youth violence.
"These kids should have been helped a long time ago," he says. "When you get them at fourteen or older, it's tough. But the legislature was reluctant, and still is, to do anything about helping preschool at-risk kids. Yet they'll drop the direct-file age for juveniles [for prosecution as adults] to twelve. What helps this program is that it's not considered social work. Because it's seen as corrections, we get more support."
Those who qualify for YOS receive a tightly regimented, in-your-face crash course in morals, manners and personal accomplishment. It begins hours after an offender arrives at DRDC, with Hell Day, the first day of boot camp. Residents are kept hopping from dawn to dusk, and sneers are promptly erased from homeboy lips. By the end of the day, trails of regurgitated franks and beans litter the physical training course.
Numerous studies have indicated that boot camps are no more effective in fighting recidivism than conventional prisons. But YOS officials say their boot camp serves as an attention-getter, a way of letting new arrivals know who's in charge and what's expected of them.
"What we're trying to do is get control over young men who've had autonomy since before adolescence," says trainer John Gamez. "We don't pamper them. We hold them accountable from day one."
Boot camp also serves to break down gang members' clannishness and rebelliousness, adds deputy director Richard Swanson, a DOC psychologist and the principal author of the program. "One of our concerns was, are we going to have gangs replicating inside the joint? How do you totally absorb the attention of these kids so they don't fall back on their gang hierarchy?" Swanson asks.
The boot-camp training is a highlight of the program's VIP tours--there's something about the sight of young lawbreakers running up and down stairs, mopping floors and "Yes, sir"-ing that seems to warm the hearts of politicians--but both Swanson and Gamez say it's the least important part of YOS. After residents complete those first few weeks, they're broken into groups of sixteen and placed in Phase One, during which they're expected to continue their education, undergo drug and alcohol counseling as needed and take intensive classes to help them correct their "criminal thinking errors."
What makes all this different from conventional approaches to rehabilitation--a term that YOS staffers avoid, just as they avoid talking about "treatment" or "therapy"--is the emphasis on personal responsibility. "One of the criticisms of juvenile court and the mental-health profession is that you take a kid and say, 'It's not your fault. You had a bad childhood,'" notes Swanson. "You allow that person to defuse responsibility and call himself a victim. That doesn't do any good."
At YOS, every privilege, from phone calls and visits to access to TV and the kind of clothes you're allowed to wear, must be earned. And, just like in the Marines, if one member of a team fouls up, the whole group can be penalized. During daily group meetings, everyone is expected to confront other members of their team over misbehavior. These bitch sessions are part of a larger strategy of promoting teamwork and conformity through "positive peer culture."
"We know we cannot change sixteen people," Noble Wallace says. "We identify the leader of that group--in most cases, a negative leader. We get him to turn around, and everyone else is going to fall in line."
Of course, many YOS offenders already know about the importance of teamwork, status, peer acceptance and the right clothes from their own experiences on the streets. In some ways, YOS culture and gang culture aren't all that different, Swanson admits.
"Many of the things we do rely on the ability to relate with groups," he says. "They involve group loyalty, manipulation of group success. People who strive for group acceptance will do well in this program, and 80 percent of our residents have had some kind of gang involvement.
"The problem is that what you're feeding on is the same dynamic as the gangs out there, only now our gang stands for good things. Once they leave us and go back to the community, it's very easy for the gang to operate on the same dynamic. That's why you have to provide more than simply positive peer culture."
Teenagers are quick to pick up on the latest slang, and the teenagers in YOS are no exception. It doesn't take them long to master the program's baffling lingo and endless acronyms: PT (Physical Training), PPC (Positive Peer Culture), IDO (Intake, Diagnostic and Orientation, another term for boot camp), GGI (Guided Group Interaction, the peer-counseling sessions), DRDC, DOC.
After a week or so, even the youngest yellow can recite the proper definitions for respect, loyalty and integrity. By the end of the first month, the sharper khakis are already making smooth references to confronting their thinking errors and finding new ways to cope. But whether they are merely talking the talk, or actually experiencing the kind of radical change in outlook YOS expects of them, is difficult to determine.
"These young men didn't turn into deviants overnight, and it's going to take time to turn them around," concedes trainer Gamez. "Basically, we're asking them to embrace a new belief system."
Many of the kids who go to YOS have most, if not all, of the baggage traditionally associated with delinquency: broken homes, deficient education, absence of male role models, the whole Blackboard Jungle package. Many don't seem to have a clue as to why they did whatever brought them here. But when they do talk about it, they talk a lot about being angry--or, in YOS-speak, about being drawn into thinking errors such as "easily angered," "easily misled," or "lack of a concept of injury to others."
Listen to khakis Richard, Aaron and Domingo as they try to account for their crimes:
"Mine, I guess, was a little bit of easily angered and inconsiderate of others," says Domingo, a former east Denver gang member. "I mean, they went and did something to me, and I got angry and seen them, and I was inconsiderate."
Translation: Domingo shot somebody. Members of a rival gang came to Domingo's house, broke the windows and scared his mother and sisters. Domingo says he was no longer gangbanging, but somehow he ended up cruising with his homeboys, looking for the guys who did it. Everybody in the car had a gun, and they ended up crashing a party, and the other gang started throwing rocks.
"I was angry, I guess," Domingo says. "I just shot 'em. I know it wasn't right, but when I think back--all the shit they put me through, the way they scared my family--I don't feel sorry for what I did. I know I should. I know it was stupid to do that. But I don't feel sorry."
At sixteen, Domingo already has a wife and baby. He was facing two charges of attempted murder, dropped to a single count of assault because of a lack of witnesses or a weapon. Given a chance at six years in YOS instead of sixteen in the penitentiary, he took the deal, hoping to get back to his family before his son is as old as he is now.
"They say prison corrupts you," he says. "It's not that. What corrupts your mind is people not caring, saying, 'He's a criminal, lock him up.' Prison, you know, they don't teach you nothing. But here I got a chance to go to school. I been thinking, 'I got a son. I better start planning something.'"
Aaron, from Fort Morgan, says his crime "wasn't a gang thing" at all. "It was mainly because of anger," he says. "It's a little town, and me and some of my friends, we were like the main troubles. The whole town knew us. Every time we'd go to court, the judges would bring in people to testify; they'd have old people in there who'd always say bad stuff about us. So we kind of got back at the whole town."
Last year Aaron and his friends got back at everybody by torching the historic Baker School in Fort Morgan, a school once attended by Glenn Miller, who used to climb on the roof to play his trombone. The building was insured, but preservationists say the landmark structure is irreplaceable. Some locals wanted to see Aaron spend a considerable chunk of his life in prison for such senseless destruction; instead, he has six years in YOS ahead of him, time to try to figure out how to get back across the line that separates him from people who don't plot revenge against entire towns.
"The other day, I didn't make my bed in the morning," he says. "They found out and they took away all the rest of the khakis' pillows. Just because I didn't make my bed. Here you got to work as a team, not an individual."
"We're not as bad as people think," insists Richard, the burglar/car thief. "It's not that our hearts are bad. It's...nobody's perfect. Some mistakes are worse than others, obviously, and our mistakes were a lot worse. But everything has a reason. This guy didn't shoot nobody; I didn't steal nothing; he didn't burn nothing for no reason. Really, I think we're better than people make us out to be."
In gentler times, kids like Richard, Aaron and Domingo might wind up on some psychiatrist's couch, trying to fathom the reasons for their crimes. But this is the Nineties, and YOS doesn't give a hoot about their reasons, so long as they change the behavior. Angry? Take anger-management classes and get over it. Gang problems? YOS makes rival gang members room together and bans all gang signs and expressions. Attitude adjustment? Right this way.
Gamez acknowledges that most residents will begin talking a good game before they truly begin to see the error of their ways. "A lot of kids will do the right thing for the wrong reason," he says. "But what happens over time is, we challenge their thinking that it's okay to hurt people, to attack and use people, to disrespect women. When we challenge them and they see other people who act differently and are successful, it shocks them. It's what we call a norms crisis."
Khakis like Richard are probably too new to the program to have had such a crisis. For that, you have to look a little further down the line, to the youths making their way through Phase One--like Ricardo and Ruben Villarreal, seventeen-year-old identical twins from Greeley. The Villarreals did their crime together; now they're doing their time together and trying to re-engineer each other in the process.
Both Villarreals were once major players in a gang in Greeley. Ricardo, who is two minutes older than Ruben, left the gang to get married and raise his son. But then Ruben got cut up by a member of another gang, and he and Ricardo went looking for the guy who did it. Even though Ruben was the shooter, they both wound up with five years in YOS for assault. If Ruben had been a better shot, it might have been life in prison for both of them.
"People can front in this program, but sooner or later they'll get in trouble and wind up in prison," says Ricardo. "Some people come here for the shorter sentence, but then they find out there's more to it. Me, I look at this as an opportunity to change myself."
"Just changing myself, from a criminal mentality to a positive one, I went through some struggles," says Ruben. "But my mom, the first day she visited she noticed that we'd changed. We were saying 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, ma'am.' We just kind of got used to it."
Although the twins went through boot camp together, they're now assigned to different groups. Ricardo says his team has been held back by the foul-ups of a couple of slackers, but since the troublemakers were sent back to IDO for retraining, things are improving. "Since they went back for remediation, we're stepping up--showing positive influences to other groups by standing at attention, marching correctly, stuff like that," Ricardo reports. "They're coming back tomorrow morning, and as a group, we're going to tell them what the new expectations of Group Five are."
"There are people in here I knew on the streets of Greeley who belonged to another gang," says Ruben. "Now we're friends. Out on the street, we would have had a fight or shot each other. We finally got a chance to sit down and talk with each other."
But will they still be friends once they're back on the street--"on the outs," as they say in YOS? Ricardo shrugs. "Some people are going to make the wrong choices again, I guess," he says.
Ruben smiles. "Being in a gang is just a phase, you know. Like kids who skateboard or wear ripped jeans. Eventually, we're going to grow up. We're not going to have that mentality anymore. I think the others will, too. They don't want to be shot at, and they don't want their kids in that, either."
Curiously, what young offenders seem to like best about YOS is what so few of them have ever experienced before: its martial discipline and purposefulness. The educational requirement, which demands that everyone strive for at least a GED, is a particular hit. In contrast to the rest of DRDC, the wing that houses the program contains a beehive of classrooms. Several residents say they never liked school on the outs, but they like it here. Of course, no one had forced them to attend before.
"School is sacred here," says Gamez. "We've got a monster in the program, around 6-3 and over 300 pounds. When he got here, he couldn't read. Why? Because he's been intimidating teachers his whole life. You can't do that here."
It helps that the classes are small, the instruction individualized and the teachers, like much of the staff, younger and more enthusiastic than the typical DOC employee. It also helps to have the prospect of years of hard time hanging over the heads of your students. "I've spent twenty years in juvenile corrections," says Rawn Swarbrick, the lead teacher. "It's difficult for anything to work. But this works."
Swarbrick says YOS has "eighteen-year-olds who are just learning the alphabet and other guys doing advanced calculus." Properly motivated, he says, many of his students display a genuine hunger for learning and end up tutoring other students. "You take the guns and girls and drugs away, and they understand they can do this," he says.
There are plenty of stories within YOS of kids who leapt several grades of reading levels in a single year, of former dropouts now gearing up to attend community college. But the most dramatic turnabout may be that of Heranio Escoto, whose story illustrates something about the peculiar attraction YOS holds for some gangbangers.
Two years ago, Escoto was sixteen and on the fast track to Canon City. He'd dropped out of school in ninth grade and left home for life in a gang in Colorado Springs. First came the juvenile charges for loitering and curfew violations, then the felonies: possession of an explosive device, criminal impersonation, motor-vehicle theft--all in one day's work.
"I had a big authority problem," Escoto says. "I disliked authority with a passion. I was in the victim stance, like 'They're out to get me.'"
Translation: A cop arrested Escoto's best friend, and Escoto tried to blow up the police car with a Molotov cocktail.
"My first thought was, 'Shoot the cop,'" he says. "But that would just get me in prison. I had some other thoughts, about causing a wreck or something. Then I thought, 'I'll blow up his cop car. He won't see me.' But Mother Nature was on my side. The wind snuffed it out."
With three felonies coming down on him all at once, Escoto was looking at 48 years on a habitual-offender rap. His lawyer was able to plea-bargain the deal down to six years, or two years in YOS. Escoto took the latter, but after Hell Day, he was wishing he'd gone straight to prison.
"I thought, man, I don't want to deal with this," he recalls. "I was asleep when they rushed into my room and told me to get moving. I did two hours of PT, and I wanted to give up. I was a smoker. I couldn't even run five minutes."
That was ten months ago. Now Escoto is completing his GED and planning to enroll in college in the fall. He's entered Phase Two, the final ninety days of incarceration, during which residents begin preparing for job interviews and re-entry into the community. And he wears the maroon polo shirt of a member of the Rams Club, the highest level of status within YOS, a kind of hallowed fraternity or gang-within-a-gang.
Rams is yet another YOS acronym: Reaching to Attain Mature Status. To join the Rams, a candidate must have an exemplary record, obtain written letters of reference from staffers and be approved by unanimous vote of the membership. Successful applicants can leave their pod unsupervised, have access to TV and a stereo, more gym time and a host of other privileges. The group also has a certain degree of authority over the rest of their podmates, including the assignment of clean-up duties.
"We do have some power," Escoto says. "There are some residents who feel we're out to get them. But we try to figure out solutions to better the pod."
Escoto says he hasn't seen his mother in two years. His most regular visitor is a volunteer Big Brother type he refers to as a "rent-a-friend." His path is hardly all clover now, but being in the Rams Club helps, he says. Whenever the stress of confinement gets to him, he can retreat to the Rams Den and listen to music, or go to the computer lab, or play basketball, "or just lay in my room and think, 'I'm this close to being out, don't mess up now,'" he says.
Being a Ram feels right to Escoto, just like gangbanging did in his former life. Sometimes he wishes the Rams had more power, like a similar club formed by the YOS kids sent to Missouri called the Generals. From what he's heard, the Generals get to march the other kids to chow, monitor their behavior and "consequent" them on the spot.
"If the staff gave us more say-so, things would change a lot faster around here," he says. "But I don't think it's all staff's fault. I mean, we are locked up in a maximum-security prison."
"Today I had an easily angered in general."
"Today I showed an authority problem and an easily angered."
"Today I had an inconsiderate to self and others."
"Let's stop jacking around. Let's stop lollygagging. Let's get to some business."
The sixteen members of Group Three sit in a circle, tuning up for their daily Guided Group Interaction. Along with academic- and cognitive-skills classes, GGI is at the heart of what YOS is all about. It's not so much group therapy as a communal confessing of sins.
Although two staffers attend each meeting--one as observer, one as nominal leader--the sessions are actually run by the residents. One by one, team members identify their "problem behaviors." When they're finished, the group votes on who is most in need of the others' counseling, criticism and advice. They then focus on that individual for the rest of the session.
Today the group is wrestling over whether to focus on Mr. Tafoya or Mr. Trevino. (In GGI, everyone becomes a Mister.) Mr. Tafoya, a Ram, blew up at another resident yesterday and is worried about repeating the incident. Mr. Trevino admits that he refuses to confront his friends in the program about their misbehavior; it feels too much like snitching, he says. The group settles on Mr. Trevino, in part because of the smirk on his face even as he admits to his "negative behavior."
"You need to start taking GGI more seriously, guy," the teen next to him says. "I always see you smiling at the feedback."
"You think you're in prison, but there ain't no snitches in YOS," one of the Rams tells him.
Others weigh in with particular suggestions about how he should confront his "homes." Mr. Trevino says little, but it's clear he cares more about some members' opinions than others. When one younger boy suggests that he's too concerned about what his friends think of him, that he has a low self-image, he snaps back, "I'm God's gift, bro."
This is too much for Mr. Tafoya. "You think you're some kind of cholo," he says. "You want to be accepted by all the Mexicans. This isn't East L.A., bro. You're not here to be their buddy. Throw this false pride out the window, you'll be all right."
"If you take a fall, we all take a fall," says another.
"You're still not taking our feedback seriously."
After about an hour of this, the meeting winds down. Some members want to talk about a staffer who wouldn't let them finish a basketball game yesterday because another team was scheduled for the gym, even though that team was willing to share the court ("He should've let the residents handle it," one boy complains), but there's no time left. Staffer Kenlynn Bennett sums up the feedback by suggesting that maybe Mr. Trevino needs to find some new friends. She also cautions the rest about using gang terminology, like "homes" and "gangsta mentality."
The words are forbidden in YOS. Sometimes, though, the mentality endures. Staffers say that conquering gang attitudes and behavior has always been a struggle. It was particularly difficult in the early days of the program, when the first hardcore gangbangers walked into boot camp.
On paper, one of the principal motivators YOS was supposed to have going for it was The Hammer--the long adult sentences facing kids who failed to cooperate. But in the beginning the program was hampered by the fact that judges would frequently sentence offenders to equal or less adult time than they'd be facing if they agreed to go into YOS. Since inmates get time off for good behavior in the adult system and no such breaks in YOS, prison often looked like a better deal. And kids who did agree to the YOS sentence had little incentive to succeed.
"The first few months were rough," John Gamez recalls. "We have seven different levels of confrontation for dealing with problems. The highest is physically restraining a person, and we had many restraints."
"If we were just reacting to behavior, all the kids we had first would have been revoked," adds Wallace. "But we took that extra step because we had 27 staff and 5 kids. It sure wasn't going to look good to go back and ask for termination on 3 because we couldn't handle them."
"The first couple of kids we put out, we knew they weren't ready," says DOC psychologist Swanson. "They got the least amount of time with us--a few months, from judges who didn't understand the program. One of them committed a new crime. He was re-recruited by the gang he left. We just didn't have enough time with him."
Staffers also had to contend with the cramped, temporary space allocated for YOS at the Denver reception center--an unappealing cinderblock complex in the middle of a maximum-security facility. The limitations of the place became even more apparent when judges started sentencing teenage girls to YOS. "We got our first kid in March of 1994," Wallace remembers, "and our first female in April or May. Nobody had thought about that."
It's easy to forget there are girls in YOS; none of them spend more than a few weeks at the reception center. After participating in boot camp with the boys, they are sent out of state to complete Phase One in private contract facilities in Iowa or South Dakota, which have agreed to provide the same routine as YOS. Since the program in Denver is operating at its 96-bed capacity, about eighty teenage boys are sent out of state, too, to similar facilities. It's not an ideal situation, staffers admit, but one that will probably persist as long as the program expands faster than the available bed space.
Still, Groff says the program has been fine-tuned since the rocky early days. Judges no longer sentence kids to mere months in the program--in 1994 the legislature upped the sentencing range for YOS from one-to-five to two-to-six years, including a minimum of nine months of community supervision. Authority for the community phase has been shifted from parole officers to community corrections agents, giving the DOC more direct control of the program from start to finish.
A scheduled move in 1998 to a new, $27 million, 300-bed facility on the grounds of the state hospital in Pueblo will allow the Phase One training to be conducted in what Groff calls a "campus-like atmosphere" while preserving a spartan prison setting for boot camp. Thirty beds will be assigned to females, enough that Colorado will probably take in problem teenage girls from other states. With 230 employees to supervise 300 inmates, the Pueblo operation will be one of the most staff-intensive corrections programs in the country.
But some glitches remain. Cooling his heels on the first tier of cells is seventeen-year-old Les, who's been in lockdown for months--one of the guys Richard described as "on their way to prison." Les has already been through boot camp, but he doesn't want to stay in YOS for one simple reason: The judge sentenced him on a handgun charge to three years in prison or four years in YOS. With all the time he's already spent in county jails and the DOC's earned-time formula for adult prisoners, he's eligible for parole this fall. If he stays in YOS, he's looking at two more years on the inside and a year of community supervision.
"My mom didn't want me to go to prison, and Phase One had good schooling--that's the only thing I wanted to stay here for," he says. "They were going to try to drop a year off my time, but the judge won't do that. I just want to get my time done, but they been messing around with me."
He scowls. "It's hard for me to stay here when they gave me such a low sentence in DOC," he says. "There ain't no way I'm going to do three years here when I can do a couple of months. There ain't no way. I can get out and go to school if I want to."
Noble Wallace says that, of the eleven youths YOS has sent to prison, only three or four were thrown out of the program for misbehavior, from assault on another resident to fouling up in community supervision. Others simply refused to participate, either because of the sentences involved or more personal considerations. One was a member of a notorious Denver crime family.
"His whole family is in DOC," Wallace says. "His attitude was, he's a criminal, he doesn't deserve to be here, he's a wimp if he stays here. He's got criminal behavior he ain't going to change."
Some of the toughest questions about YOS come from officials in the juvenile justice system. In the past decade the underfunded and overcrowded Division of Youth Corrections has been overrun with hard cases, including second-generation gangbangers. Corrections professionals say it makes sense to establish a third tier, a middle ground between the juvenile and adult systems, but they also wonder whether the "right" kids are ending up in YOS.
One persistent criticism is that while the program was billed as a place for habitual criminals, worse offenders often end up in the juvenile system. "There are clearly kids in YOS who are lightweights compared to some you see in [Division of Youth Corrections]," says Grant Jones, chairman of the Colorado Juvenile Parole Board. "We see kids with violent crimes all the time who've been filed on as juveniles--it's just up to the DA's office, and there's never been a whole lot of consistency in the sentencing guidelines."
Similar concerns have been voiced by Denver Juvenile Court Judge David Ramirez, who has suggested that the considerable investment the state is making in YOS, which will exceed $12 million a year by the time the Pueblo facility opens, could be better spent on the juvenile side. Others have raised questions about the racial makeup of the YOS population, which is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic--by design, perhaps, given the program's emphasis on gang-related crimes rather than all felonies.
Noble Wallace concedes that the racial mix did give him pause at the outset. "Our first 47 kids were kids of color," he says. "Number 48 was a white kid, and he just happened to be a skinhead. Came in with a black eye and a broken jaw from the county jail."
The imbalance has since declined. According to the program's latest annual report, roughly 40 percent of YOS residents are black; another 40 percent are Hispanic; almost all the remaining 20 percent are white. By contrast, in the juvenile system, nearly half the offenders are white, a third Hispanic, and only 16 percent are black, according to 1994-95 figures.
"The right type of kid is coming to YOS, as far as the crime goes," Wallace insists. He points out that special legislation allows juveniles with two prior felonies to be direct-filed as adults and sent to YOS. Yet only a handful of residents have been sentenced under that law; fully 80 percent of the YOS population have no prior commitments in the juvenile system.
Those who have had some contact with the juvenile system say that YOS is a better deal. "It's harder, but I think it helps," says Benito Pineda, eighteen, who admits to having been "in the Gill [Denver's Gilliam Youth Services Center] a few times." "When I was in the juvenile system, I used to get in fights all the time. I didn't really care if I went back."
Now Pineda's in Phase Three of YOS, doing assembly work under community supervision in Aurora and completing a two-year sentence on a felony menacing charge. "I look at things different now," he says. "Before, all I ever hung out with was my homeboys. I never really liked nobody. Now I've started kicking with a lot of different people. My gang mentality--I don't think like that anymore."
And even though the majority of YOS residents are first-time offenders, that doesn't mean they're wide-eyed innocents--"I had done a lot of stuff, but this was the first thing I got caught for," as one puts it. Quite a few have had their cases plea-bargained down from attempted murder to assault or menacing. And some have killed, like eighteen-year-old Shawn Driskell, who shot a Thornton youth in a dispute over a Colorado Rockies hat in 1992 and wound up with six years in YOS for manslaughter after a key witness, the victim's brother, died in an auto accident days before Driskell's trial. Or like fifteen-year-old Brian, who's serving two years for manslaughter in the death of a teenage girl, a shooting he claims was accidental.
"I consider this a break," says Brian, a slight youth who's still in boot-camp yellow. "I could have got life. Instead of wasting my time and everybody else's time in prison for the rest of my life, I'm able to come here, get discipline, get educated better and be able to be a productive member of society. When I get out, I'm going to be still in high school."
But baby-faced killers aren't the usual YOS fare. More typical, and harder to categorize, is Chucky Montoya, nineteen, who started the program two years ago and is just now entering Phase Three. According to Chucky and his mother, Della, he'd never been in serious trouble before he got into an altercation at a party in Lakewood in 1994. Chucky and his older brother left, but the fight spilled outside, and Chucky stabbed a man who was assaulting his brother. He pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and has five years in the adult system hanging over his head.
Chucky says YOS taught him a lot--he joined the Rams Club, nearly finished his high school credits and "started believing in myself." But his mother has mixed feelings about the program.
"It really broke my heart to see how they would be mean to them and tell them to jump," says Della Montoya about Chucky's boot-camp ordeal. "But that'll teach them a lesson. They have to listen to someone, right? Chucky's always listened to me, because if he didn't, I used to knock the shit out of him. Excuse my language, but that's what I did."
YOS made her son grow up, she adds, and she was relieved that he wasn't sent off to an adult prison. At the same time, she was frustrated by officials' decision to suspend her visits when another member of Chucky's team fouled up. And she's unhappy that they won't let him serve his community supervision at her home in northwest Denver, citing concerns about "gang influences" in his old neighborhood. Instead, he's sharing an apartment in Aurora with Benito Pineda.
"I don't like that neighborhood," Della says. "I'd rather have him at home. Chucky's not a violent person, and he never got in trouble when he was with me."
It's a hot June day on the grocery-store picket lines, and the voice in eighteen-year-old Adam's head is telling him to be cool. Be very cool.
Here he is, a non-union stocker at Safeway, and over here is this guy on the picket line who keeps calling him out. Calling him a scab. Challenging him.
The old Adam would have accepted the challenge in a heartbeat. That's what landed him in YOS. There was an argument, a gun was pulled, and Adam caught two years on an assault charge. But this is the new Adam, and he just walks away. In seconds it's all over--except for the call Adam makes later to Tina Beekmann to talk about what just happened.
Beekmann, an agent for the DOC's Division of Community Corrections, has one of the busiest pagers in town. She supervises ten kids from YOS who are currently back on the streets, completing Phase Three. They're expected to call Beekmann before something bad happens. It's a tall order, but Adam, for one, seems to be managing.
"If I'm having a bad day and somebody gets in my face, I weigh some consequences before I do anything," Adam says. "What they taught us in YOS pretty much applies out here."
Out here, Adam and the other Phase Three offenders no longer have the Rams Club, GGI, or the minute-to-minute structure of YOS to force them to behave. What they do have are ten o'clock curfews and ankle bracelets, twice-a-week random drug tests and once-a-week breathalyzer tests for alcohol. And Beekmann, who meets twice a week with each of them.
Most of the Phase Three offenders are no longer juveniles--they're eighteen or nineteen by the time Beekmann sees them. But the supervision is much more intensive than it is with adult parolees. "When I was working with the adult system, I had a much larger caseload," Beekmann says. "It was harder to build a rapport."
But even with the best rapport, being back on the outs can be a shock. Kids who are used to marching to chow suddenly find themselves roaming free--and confronted with a long list of things they must do to complete their sentence. "On paper, you figure, this kid's going to work, go to school, do community service, report to his corrections agent--but the kid may not be able to handle all that at once," says Carl Sagara, program administrator for Phase Three. "Obviously, school comes first. That and meeting with the agent. The frequency of contact will have a direct bearing on whether they succeed."
YOS tries to prepare residents for the transition by devoting their final ninety days of incarceration to job-hunting tips, resume-writing and the like. (When job applications ask about the seeker's criminal history, they are told to write "Will discuss at interview.") The program is seeking bids from private contractors to move the transition phase to a group home off-site, but right now it's done from behind bars. Decisions about placement--whether offenders will be returning to their old neighborhoods, to parents and girlfriends (and, in some cases, offspring), or be relocated somewhere across town, like Chucky Montoya--can add to the anxiety.
"We have to remind them that their first priority is to get themselves set up," says John Bongirno, the "transition specialist" for YOS. "Then they can consider bringing the family unit together. The fortunate ones have something we can work with from beginning to end--a stable family, something they buy into."
But sometimes the most stable element in a young man's life is his gang. "Gang things are the biggest hurdle," Beekmann says. "For a lot of guys, that was their support system before they went in."
So far, the Division of Community Corrections has recommended that two Phase Three youths be revoked and sent to prison--one for flashing a gun, the other for what Sagara calls "chronic noncompliant behavior related to gang activity." (Beekmann says she found a gun receipt, pagers, a baseball bat covered with gang graffiti and other evidence that the youth was still gangbanging.) For minor infractions such as missing curfew, Beekmann has put other offenders under house arrest or yanked them back into DRDC for a weekend or more.
"The two guys we sent back were not salvageable," she says. "A lot of guys are very polite when they're in the institution. But I see it slip when they hit Phase Three and start hanging around with their old friends. They lose a little respect, show attitude problems.
"Some people are going to get involved with gangs again. But if they're away from it a whole year, it's going to be a lot easier for them to stay away."
Just as her charges are supposed to call her before trouble starts, Beekmann is supposed to smell a situation brewing and intervene before it's too late. She says she has a pretty good feel for those who are going to make it and those who might cause problems. But that could change; her caseload is rising.
The original scheme for YOS called for each agent to have eight cases. Now it's ten to one, and under the new state budget it's expected to increase to fifteen to one. Checking up on her guys twice a week, as she does now, will be "virtually impossible," Beekmann says. "That's thirty contacts a week."
Ultimately, the members of the Phase Three crew will be on their own--if not now, then when they complete their sentences. That may not be a problem for those who, as Bongirno puts it, have something to buy into.
Mark Stettenbenz considers himself one of the lucky ones. A ninth-grade dropout who pistol-whipped a young man in the course of a robbery, Stettenbenz used his YOS time to complete his education and work on the anger ("It was like I was pissed off at the whole world") and other factors he believes led to his life as a hood. Now he's back at his family's suburban home, taking classes at a community college and working for a local car dealer. At nineteen, after seven months of Phase Three, he's thinking about a career designing jewelry.
For others, life on the outs is entirely different from anything they're used to. "Staying away from my friends is kind of hard," admits Benito Pineda, who was transplanted to the wilds of Aurora to keep him away from his old gang on the west side. "When I first got out, I was real nervous. I wasn't used to being around a lot of people. I went downtown and then came straight here. It felt weird."
YOS arranged for Chucky Montoya to move in with Penida last month. After a hard week of job-hunting, Chucky likes to kick back on the sofa with a kung-fu video game and try to maneuver his player past a series of high-kicking, fast-jabbing warriors. From time to time, the game's deep-voiced announcer booms, "You win!" But it also booms, "You lose!"
It's only a game, and Chucky, a skilled player, wins far more than he loses. But the outcome of the final round seems very much in doubt.
To date, the State of Colorado has spent nearly $80,000 on Chucky's incarceration and betterment. Whether it pays off, whether the entire Youthful Offender System survives, depends a lot on how Chucky, Benito, Adam and the rest of the program's "graduates" behave on the street.
"It is a lot of bucks," concedes director Groff. "But it's a darn good investment. Clearly, the old approach to corrections doesn't change guys much. So many of them go right back to prison.
"Put it this way: Do you want them coming back with almost a guarantee that they'll be meaner, crueler and maybe a little bit shrewder? You know good and well that if you don't spend the money what the result will be--just more people out of control, far more dangerous. And our lives are diminished. The guys get out, and we jump behind bars. Who's afraid? Who lives behind bars? Not the guy roaming the street."
Groff pauses. "Frankly," he says, "I've been amazed by the support we've had from the legislature. If we don't blow it, then the money will keep coming. The only way it won't is if kids leave here and start screwing up.
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.