The necessity for change within state’s youth corrections system

Last year, 53 Colorado legislators co-sponsored a Division of Youth Corrections Reform bill, HB17-1329. It was inspired by Bound and Broken, the shocking report which described brutal abuse and mistreatment of already traumatized youth confined at DYS. It followed revelations about fights, assaults, use of protracted and illegal solitary confinement as well as riots in Spring Creek and other DYS facilities, as reported by The Gazette (“Trouble Behind Bars”, Oct. 4, 2015 and “Spring Creek Riot” Sept. 9, 2016) . Our goal with HB17-1329 was to transform the punitive culture and create a therapeutic and rehabilitative environment that would be safe for staff and youths. For kids to change, they need an environment that is safe, secure and nonviolent, one where they can develop healthy trusting and respectful relationships with adult role models. These are common-sense approaches to help ensure delinquent youth become productive responsible adults.

Throughout the legislative process, we had many meetings with DYS leaders. The theme of those meetings was the necessity for cultural change within DYS’s facilities. Although DYS leadership continued to work against the bill’s passage, they agreed that change was needed and promised it would happen. Recent events at DYS have raised continuing concerns.

Last month, a guard at the Grand Mesa Youth Services Center was charged with sexually assaulting two young girls in custody. This follows another arrest of a guard at the Gilliam Youth Detention Center in Denver last December, again for sexually assaulting two minor girls in custody there. At the end of August, a child committed suicide at the Mount View Youth Services Center in Lakewood. This was the second youth suicide at Mount View in three months.

Now we learn that DYS has honored an employee accused of brutalizing children under the protection of DYS. Mark Huerta, a guard at the Lookout Youth Services Center in Golden, and a mixed martial arts fighter, has received 35 complaints against him for “Institutional Abuse and Neglect”. Of the 17 DHS chose to investigate, it concluded that none were founded. But it noted that “there appears to be a pattern of alleged physical abuse with Mr. Mark Huerta.”

Young people at Lookout consistently identify Huerta as one of its most brutal guards. Lawyers for the incarcerated youth have also witnessed Huerta’s abusive tactics and filed complaints with the director of Lookout. Despite all of this, DYS now employs Huerta to train other staff in physical management of kids. Then, in August, they named him employee of the month. Is this the message of culture change that DYS wants to send to its staff? Does Huerta represent the DYS model for its employees?

Allegations of physical abuse, sexual assault and suicides call into question DYS’s ability and commitment to making the kind of change that is required in our state’s youth correctional system.

It is true that, after the Bound and Broken report, DYS promised to phase out some of its pain-compliance techniques, such as striking kids with knees in sensitive nerve areas and restraining youngest kids with the WRAP, a full body straight jacket, but that’s only part of the solution.

Real change will require intensive staff retraining and the willingness to reassign, rather than reward, problem guards.

The overwhelming majority of young people entrusted to DYS custody will be released into our communities. We have a right to insist that the experience DYS provides ensures that they emerge rehabilitated and equipped to succeed as productive and healthy Coloradans.

It is not the enormity of our problems but the lack of forthright commitment to solutions that stands in the way of substantive improvement.

The first step is to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. DYS must be willing to examine its practices, behavior patterns and values, and ask if they are consistent with the principles it agreed to and the changes it promised during the 2017 legislative session. If they are not, DYS must show the courage and willpower to replace them with approaches that promise the youths will emerge from its facilities better, not worse; whole, not broken. We stand ready to work with DYS to that end.

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette. It was co-authored with Lois Landgraf, the state representative for House District 21.

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