- Adrian Stanley
- Anders Jacobson has seen decreased violence.
As Rep. Pete Lee has worked to reform Colorado's criminal justice system, he says he's tried to build bridges. But his battle to reform the Division of Youth Corrections (DYC) — which one of his bills recently rechristened the Division of Youth Services (DYS) — has been contentious.
"My first foray into this is when I got called by the teachers down at Spring Creek [Youth Services Center], three, four years ago," he recalls. "And they said, 'Can you come down?' And I said, 'I'm in session, I can't.'"
But two weeks later, when the 2014 legislative session was out, Lee says he visited the center in Colorado Springs and tried to get information about violence in youth facilities from the DYC. They wouldn't provide what he wanted. But in the next session, Lee's 2015 House Bill 1131 passed, mandating the release of records of fights, assaults and other critical incidents in DYC.
The reports released in the law's wake led to unflattering coverage in the Gazette, detailing harsh treatment of youth offenders.
Disturbed, Lee went on to pass HB 1328 in 2016, which imposed strict limits on the use of solitary confinement and restraint for juveniles, including that they not be used as punishment or in retaliation. In the last legislative session, he went even further, passing House Bill 1329, co-sponsored by Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, which changed the division's name and altered its purposes to reflect a trauma-informed rehabilitation model. The bill also established a pilot program aimed at radically transforming DYS into something akin to the youth offender system that Lee had seen during a trip to tour Missouri's facilities.
The bill came in the wake of the release of the Bound and Broken report by the Colorado Child Safety Coalition in February 2016. The Coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, Disability Law Colorado, the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, and the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center, reviewed over 1,000 pages of documents, as well as videos, and interviewed 21 young people incarcerated in 11 of the division's 13 state-owned facilities. Their findings were eye-opening.
"Over the last 21/2 years, complaints of violence at DYC and injury to both young people and staff have skyrocketed," the report noted. "In the three months preceding this report, our coalition received over 28 complaints of abuse."
The report found that between fiscal year 2012-13 and fiscal year 2015-16 fights and assaults at the DYC had increased and that injury to both staff and kids consistently exceeded the national average as well as DYC's internal goals. That occurred despite there being fewer kids in DYC's care, consistency in the percentage of violent offenders in DYC, and significant increases in funding and staffing for DYC.
Between January 2016 and January 2017, a 13-month period, DYC staff physically restrained youths at least 3,611 times, with over 60 percent of those restraints involving handcuffs, shackles and/or a device called the WRAP, which most closely resembles a straitjacket. The WRAP was used at least 253 times and DYC staff placed young people in isolation 2,240 times in that period, with some spending days in solitary confinement. Among those subjected to the barren cell was one 11-year-old, two 12-year-olds and nine 13-year-olds. That data, the report noted, is likely an undercount because information from three privately run facilities was not reported or not reported fully.
The WRAP is particularly extreme — and Colorado is one of only a few juvenile justice systems in the country to use it. "To place a young person in the WRAP," the report notes, "DYC staff put the youth in handcuffs, bind the youth's legs together, and then wrap the youth in full body restraint. A strap placed between the chest and legs forces the youth into a seated position. DYC facilities sometimes apply a 'spit mask,' a cloth that covers the child's head and face, and a helmet while the child is in WRAP restraint."
In 2014, the Arkansas Division of Youth Corrections banned the WRAP after the Arkansas juvenile ombudsman tried it out himself and called the device "torture." DYC, the report noted, uses the WRAP in at least nine facilities. Their records show one youth was placed in the WRAP 17 times. Another child was placed in the WRAP twice in one day, the second time after a suicide attempt.
Kids consulted for the report say they were put in the WRAP for anywhere from minutes to hours. Multiple youths said the device made it difficult to breathe, made their extremities go numb and could be painful. One youth reported being put in the WRAP with the spit guard with a bloody nose.
"I was trying to breathe and blood was filling up in my mouth and coming up in my nose," the youth is quoted as saying. "And I was trying to spit it out but I couldn't. And I was crying."
The use of solitary confinement was supposed to drop after Lee's 2016 bill passed. But the report found that "both the number of isolation incidents and average lengths of isolation are on the rise." (DYS has since dropped its average length of stay in seclusion to less than an hour, far better than the national average of 17 hours.)
Lee's seclusion law did have some impacts. Prior to the law's passage, one youth, identified as "David" in the report, was held in isolation "23 hours a day for weeks and sometimes months at a time, on and off, for over two years."
DYC also commonly uses pressure point and pain compliance techniques on youths, the report stated, despite the Department of Justice's finding that pressure point control tactics are "neither designed, nor developmentally appropriate, for use with children and adolescents," and that using them violates kids' constitutional rights. And DYC staff are also known to knee their charges — there have also been reports of kids being thrown on their faces or struck. DYC confirmed for the report that youths have suffered head injuries, concussions, rug burns, shoulder separation, bruises, bleeding and other injuries at the hands of staff members.
Bound and Broken notes that one study found that over 90 percent of juvenile detainees report at least one prior traumatic event. That means that further trauma in DYS can reinforce trust issues and worsen behavior.
After State Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, looked to run a bill that would have banned the WRAP in DYC this past session, DYC leadership agreed to phase out its use. According to an April 28 letter from Colorado Department of Human Services Director Reggie Bacha to the chairs of the Committee on Public Health Care and Human Services and the Committee on Health and Human Services, a task force has been formed and charged with eliminating the use of pressure point pain compliance and offensive strikes, and the DYS will eliminate the use of the WRAP on 10- to 13-year-olds by July 1, 2017. The DYS will stop using the WRAP altogether no later than July 1, 2018.
In August 2016, there was a riot at Spring Creek.
At the time, the Gazette reported that staff said the inability to use solitary confinement and restraints to the level they once had left them with few tools to deal with unruly youths. The staff felt endangered, and at times, were actually injured.
A Gazette story on the riot reported, "What some Spring Creek staff described as a full-scale riot missing only 'helicopters, the National Guard and trash cans on fire' happened inside the locked residential center on the evening of Aug. 28, a Sunday."
Shortly afterward, DYC director Charles "Chuck" Parkins departed his post. He had been the second director since John Gomez, who had run the DYC since 2001, retired in 2014. Anders Jacobson, the associate director, was named interim director, and permanently took the post in December.
In October, Jacobson made Spring Creek a model. The coed facility had served both detention (kids awaiting trial) and commitments (kids already sentenced), and had operated on a 1-to-10 or even 1-to-12 staff-to-youth ratio, he says. Jacobson made it strictly a detention facility and knocked the ratio down to about 1-to-5, both by adding staff and reducing the number of youths in the facility (possible, since they were no longer holding committed kids).
The effect, he says, was immediate. It decreased the number of violent incidents, the need for restraint and seclusion, and improved relationships between staff and kids, while allowing for better staff development.
"Now," he says, "we have the ability to be proactive."
On a recent Tuesday, Spring Creek is calm and meticulously clean. Joe Kurtz, the facility director, leads a tour through classrooms, a gym, two outdoor areas, a cafeteria that offers kids meal choices, and pods where kids sleep and get ready. The place has an institutional feel — painted cement block walls, tiny cells with thin, bare mattresses where the kids sleep. Still, while some of it still looks like a prison, other sections could be mistaken for a school, with collages, pictures and inspiring quotes hung on the walls.
The kids, dressed in green scrubs like nurses, seem calm. Kurtz says Spring Creek tends to get the rougher kids — including those accused of burglary, robbery, murder and attempted murder. But he seems to make an effort to treat them like kids anyway. He notes that Harrison School District 2 provides classes throughout the year, so the kids can continue their schooling; there's physical activity in the day's schedule, and pods that keep their area clean or avoid physical altercations are rewarded at the end of the week with treats, privileges or a large trophy. They often parade the latter around the facility with pride.
"The positive reinforcement goes a long way," Kurtz says.
Kids are also taught social skills, and how to deal with their emotions. And the facility has reached out to community partners that provide activities, from basketball skills courses to poetry to hula dancing. What's more, kids are kept in their small pod groups of 10 to 12, and with the same staff members throughout the day, allowing for relationship-building and for staff to better learn how to avoid kids' triggers and help them when they become upset.
It's telling that some of the old isolation rooms at Spring Creek are now used for storage. Jacobson doesn't seem to be interested in defending the old ways of DYS. Instead, he says, he's on board with the changes and thankful that the legislature has given his division more funds in recent years that have allowed him to better staff facilities. He says he wants to bring a trauma-informed approach to DYS, and that staff never want to "physically manage" a child.
But he chafes at the picture painted by Bound and Broken. He notes that 21 kids were interviewed, but says he could have found 21 kids who went through DYC and thought it was the most constructive experience of their lives — it just depends on the kids. And as for the numbers, which his division provided for the report, he says the terms can be confusing. For instance, he says, physical handling of a kid includes simply placing an arm on theirs and guiding them out of a room. Furthermore, he says, many DYS facilities have long been safe and well-run, and he's had experts from other states, including Missouri, visit his facilities and be impressed by their services and culture. Due to Bound and Broken, he says, "I think our staff are mostly just sad."
It's a calling to work in the division, he says, and a difficult job. But he says DYS has already dramatically dropped the number of restraints, physical contacts and use of solitary confinement under his leadership. And he says he's hoping to learn something from the upcoming pilot to make his facilities safer for both kids and staff.
"We want someone to come in that will make us better," he says.
The pilot program will be based on best practices, and those borrow a lot from Missouri's youth system, which is highlighted in Bound and Broken. The report calls it "the gold standard for humane and effective treatment of incarcerated youth."
Missouri also has its share of violent youths, but its DYS leadership estimates that a youth hasn't been put in handcuffs in their system in six years. The system doesn't use isolation or the WRAP. Compared to other states, Bound and Broken reports, kids in Missouri are 4.5 times less likely to be assaulted, 17 times less likely to be placed in mechanical restraints, and 200 times less likely to be placed in solitary. The staff are also safer — 13 times less likely to be assaulted than in other states.
"The kids and the correctional officers in Colorado's facilities feel unsafe so they reach out and fight with each other," Lee says. "The guards are scared of the kids and the kids are scared of the guards. You don't have that in Missouri."
The model is straightforward. Kids are put in therapeutic groups led by a staff member, where they feel accountable to their peers and are urged to consider their behavior. The kids help facilitate their own treatment. The program is considered "trauma-informed," meaning it responds to situations in a way that takes into account the responses of children who have experienced trauma in their lives. The facilities are home-like and kids wear their own clothes. Some keep teddy bears in their bunks and drawings on their walls.
Compare that, Lee says, to Spring Creek. "It's prison, it's cell blocks, it's concrete walls, it's sally ports with slamming doors, it's bars on windows, it's furniture that's totally institutional, it's mattresses that are this thick (he pinches his fingers together), it's isolation rooms that would make you crazy."
Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, worked with Lee on House Bill 1329. She says that the reforms are needed, noting that some of the practices in DYS "would be child abuse if a parent did it."
Besides, she says, "Ninety-seven percent of people in prison will one day be released. So if we aren't focused on rehabilitation, we've lost the game."
— J. Adrian Stanley