Restraining adolescent offenders with shackles and full-body straitjackets, putting youth in isolation and striking their knees, thighs, buttocks and ribs has created "a culture of violence" at Colorado's juvenile detention centers that has reached a crisis level, according to a report released Thursday by the Colorado Child Safety Coalition.
The group is calling for the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections to stop punitive physical practices and instead use a therapeutic approach to rehabilitating adolescents who have had run-ins with the law.
"We wrote this report to speak for the children and make clear that outside help is needed now," said Rebecca Wallace, an American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado staff attorney and one of the principal authors of the report.
Despite repeated assurances and steps taken to curtail violence and improve safety for employees and youth, "We have lost faith in the Division of Youth Corrections leadership's ability to change the culture from within," Wallace told The Gazette.
"We're seeing the changes coming from the top, but we're not seeing the culture shift on the ground for the kids," she said. "It felt things were reaching a fever pitch."
After reviewing the report, Anders Jacobson, director of the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections, called many of the accusations "inflammatory."
"Colorado's Division of Youth Corrections excels in a number of areas," Jacobson said, "including high graduation rates and average seclusion times that are far lower than the national average. The Division also is a leader in placing lower-risk youth in community settings and has been a leader in prevention."
Titled "Bound and Broken," the 33-page report documents that - contrary to Youth Corrections' mission of rehabilitating wayward adolescents involved in criminal activity - the centers punish and harm the adolescents, using "physical pain, isolation and verbal degradation."
The report's primary recommendation: within six months start a pilot program similar to a model used in Missouri that focuses on getting to the root problems of youth misbehavior and crime.
"Who would argue with the goal of eliminating the use of physical restraints?" Jacobson said. "While the report talks about what should change, it does not speak to how it should change. We're trying to figure out what the safe alternatives should be and how to implement them."
Gazette investigations cited
State Rep. Pete Lee, a Democrat representing Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, has sponsored several bills aimed at improving the state's correctional systems. While he had not seen the report before its release Thursday, he said he's been disappointed about "the failure of the Division of Youth Corrections to make fundamental changes to address the culture of violence that exists within their facilities."
Violence has risen "dramatically" in recent years, the report states, leaving youth and staff feeling afraid and unsafe. Between 2013 and 2016, the centers experienced a 42 percent increase in fights and assaults and a 108 percent increase in "critical incidents," the most egregious altercations.
From January 2016 to January 2017, DYC staff physically restrained kids 3,611 times and placed youth in solitary confinement 2,240 times.
Youth have sustained bruises, scratches, rug burns, separated joints and closed head injuries during restraint episodes, the report states, which "make youth scared, angry, and resentful; feelings that stymie rehabilitation."
Youth Corrections staff follow state law and policy and use physical interventions "only after other non-physical interventions have failed and only with youth who are highly assaultive," Jacobson said. "The objective is to avoid injury to the youth, other youth or staff, Our policy is to never use physical management interventions as punishment."
Part of the challenge has been that the youth to staff ratio at Youth Corrections' centers is one staff member per every 11 youth, Jacobson said, which is not in compliance with the federal government's 1:8 requirement.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has requested $5 million to add 80 full time employees to the divison for the upcoming fiscal year to reduce the ratio to 1:8. Another $3 million requested would increase mental health treatment and physical health care for Division of Youth Corrections clients, which Jacobson said is currently not sufficient.
Among references, the report cites Gazette investigations that began in May 2014 and continued through 2016 into Spring Creek Youth Services Center, an 80-bed detention center in Colorado Springs.
In the months following a gang-fueled riot last August, some employees said that the Spring Creek violence had reached an intolerable level and released to The Gazette video footage of youth attacking each other and employees.
Staff, including a Spring Creek whistleblower who sought state protection in claiming that what was happening inside amounted to child abuse and neglect, said verbal deescalation techniques have not been effective, which has resulted in staff getting injured more.
Jacobson said changing the daytime staff to youth ratio at Spring Creek to 1:5 last October resulted in "substantial reductions in fights, assaults, seclusions, physical management and youth and staff injuries."
The overall number of fights and assaults dropped by about half, he said, which is "real culture change. The staffing ratio matters."
Missouri's culture of healing
The coalition - consisting of the ACLU of Colorado, Disability Law Colorado, the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender and the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center - spoke with 21 youth who are or have been incarcerated at 11 of the 13 state-run facilities, including Spring Creek. The group also reviewed more than 1,000 pages of DYC internal documents, videos and medical reports regarding incidents that occurred between 2013 and 2016.
"They are our most vulnerable kids," Wallace said. "They've experienced abuse, neglect, death at a young age, more than half struggle with mental illness. They need treatment not punishment. Research shows they still are changeable - we can affect the rest of their lives, if we can get in and reflect the treatment they need."
Wallace and Lee traveled to Missouri last month with Jacobson and other Youth Corrections leaders to observe its juvenile justice system there.
The group met with Mark Steward, director of Missouri Youth Services Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps states implement a therapeutic model of rehabilitation, and toured high-security and moderate-security facilities.
Instead of being held a prison-like environment, youth offenders in Missouri live in dorm-like rooms in which they can have personal belongings and wear their own clothes. They meet in small groups with the same staff member, to develop a personal relationship.
"It's a very caring type of environment, where the youth and staff work together in a unique way," Steward said in a phone interview. "We help them with the issues that got them into trouble."
Instead of making students obey rules to get released - such as don't fight or misbehave, go to school and do homework - Missouri's system is "a culture of healing and helping" that starts with self-examination, Steward said.
"We look at their families, backgrounds, gang involvement, issues on the street, neglect, abuse - everything that makes that individual youth who they are," Steward said. "They get an understanding of each other and work together to address their trauma or issue and figure out what they can do differently when go back home."
The program works, he said. For years, Missouri has had the best success rates in the nation, Steward said, in terms of recidivism, with more than 90 percent of youth not returning to juvenile correction or prison.
Missouri centers also are safer, Steward said.
"Youth are four times less likely to be assaulted in Missouri facilities," he said, "and staff are 11 times less likely to be assaulted."
Lee said the minute he walked into a juvenile detention center in Missouri, it felt different in a good way.
"I was impressed," he said. "The kids described trusting relationships with staff, and that level of trust and respect was palpable."
"A crisis right now"
After hearing about the coalition's report, Lee said he filed a request on Tuesday to be allowed to bring forth another bill during this legislative session for Youth Corrections to start a pilot program using the Missouri model.
"I'm thinking we could do it in six figures," he said.
The proposal would have to go through the Joint Budget Committee before moving on to legislators.
"Our kids can't wait," Lee said. "We need to begin a pilot program this year, and we need to begin the change in culture in the Division of Youth Corrections right now."
Jacobson said the division in February assembled a committee to review physical management techniques used in Colorado and physical management systems around the country. In April, the Missouri Youth Services Institute will come to Colorado to do a feasibility assessment for a pilot program, he said.
"We want to do the pilot appropriately," Jacobson said, "and that includes a thoughtful planning process that involves experts who can determine how to best integrate the Missouri approach into Colorado's system."
Wallace said the coalition's new report provides "a clear path to reform."
"We want to see acknowledgment that there is a problem right now, a crisis right now, and there is a plan for immediate action."