Prisoners of Sex

The night her roommate was raped, Angel Castro says, she had a ringside seat. She was in the upper bunk when the bed below her began to shake.

The man who came into their room that night had no worries about locks or the law. He didn't seem to care that his victim might try to summon help or that a witness was hovering five feet above his head.

Why should he? He worked for the Colorado Department of Corrections, and these girls were his prisoners.

Castro and her roommate were among a handful of females in the Youthful Offender System, the state's costly, controversial "last chance" program for adolescent felons. In YOS, juveniles convicted of violent crimes are put through a rigorous boot camp, followed by years of classes and counseling sessions designed to change criminal behavior, then intensive supervised parole -- all with the prospect of being sent to adult prison if they foul up at any stage.

The typical YOS teen is not simply wayward but deep in the woods, and Angel Castro, let's face it, was no angel. She arrived at the program's Pueblo "campus," on the grounds of the state mental hospital, in early 2001, after a crazy-ass carjacking that resulted in a woman being stabbed. Castro pulled the woman from the car and Maced her, but she did not wield the knife. The judge gave her sixteen years and then suspended the sentence, on the condition that she complete five and a half years in YOS.

Huffing and straining through weeks of boot camp, Castro figured she'd landed in some kind of super-sized "Scared Straight" program. But being one of only six girls in YOS, surrounded by 200 male offenders, made her uneasy from the start. Some of the boys were downright nasty, and nobody seemed to give a damn.

"They were always talking about your butt, harassing you, trying to grab you and stuff," Castro recalls. "And the staff would be like, 'It's no big thing.' They couldn't understand that a lot of us girls have issues with that because of our past history."

Angel Castro had issues, all right. She could handle the boys; they were no worse than the boys she knew on the street, the ones who would try to take you in a basement or a car, with a knife to your throat or a gun to your head. But the guards -- the grown men who were supposed to protect you from the YOS boys -- they were a whole different kind of threat.

In boot camp, there was a drill instructor named Duane Coleman who made her uncomfortable. Although he was 36 years old and married, his eyes seemed to be all over her. One day, when she asked a boy how to put a crease in her shirt, Coleman accused her of doing a striptease. She'd never known a cop who talked like that.

When she finished boot camp and moved into the girls' dorm, she was surprised to find male staff working there. "They were always in the dayroom, always going into your room, giving you little looks," she says. One of the most persistent was her former DI, Coleman. "He would make small talk, leave, and five minutes later he'd come back."

In YOS, the guards have tremendous power. A bad report from one of them can send you back to boot camp. They can drop-kick your ass to solitary confinement or even start the revocation process, which could lead to your serving your full sentence in an adult prison. You don't defy staff unless you really, really want to grow old behind bars.

So when the male staffer showed up in Castro's room one night, five months into her stay at YOS, she didn't cry out. Neither did her roommate. They just tried to pretend that the intruder -- later identified by both girls as Duane Coleman -- wasn't there, that this wasn't happening.

"I looked down, and Coleman was sitting on my roommate's bed," Castro says. "She had a pillow over her head, and his hand was down her pants. He looked up at me. I rolled over and looked at the wall. He left and came back. He said something about how his dick's too big, he broke the condom, but that's okay because he has a whole bunch more."

The bed began to shake. Castro looked at the wall. After it was over, she listened to her roommate sobbing quietly in the dark.

"She cried and she cried and she cried. I told her, 'I am so sorry,'" Castro says. "I was just sixteen years old. I didn't know what to do."

She didn't know what to do about her roommate's situation any more than she knew what to do about her own. The night before, in another dark room, she'd received her own grim initiation into the kind of "opportunities" YOS offered to sixteen-year-old girls. A 44-year-old corrections officer named Gary Neal had forced himself on her, Castro says, and she hadn't told anyone. Who was there to tell, she wondered, in a place like this?

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast