Sixty years ago in October, I began what was to be a 23-month stay at the military-style State Industrial School for Boys in Golden, Colorado. I was six weeks short of my 11th birthday.
In the next two years, I often found myself in rough circumstances at this “reform school,” including rape, solitary confinement, public paddling, verbal and other abuse from guards we were forced to call “counselors,” and constant fighting that I routinely got the worst of until I learned late in my stay how to win.
My experience as a court-designated “juvenile delinquent” was far from atypical for the younger boys in Colorado’s “reform school” at the time. Sixty years before then, when the Industrial School was brand new, the place was far worse and stayed that way until a scandal in 1941 revealed beatings amounting to torture by the authorities who were supposed to be doing the reforming. Boys had been tied up, chained to walls, flogged, and otherwise abused by the authorities charged with taking care of them. Several boys had been kept chained to balls they had to drag around all the time, like some medieval nightmare, only being allowed to take them off when showering.
Sixty years since I began doing my time in 1957—six decades during which several legislative reforms, insightful behavioral studies, and much theorizing have been done regarding “at risk” juveniles—the descendant of the Industrial School is one of the state’s 12 youth detention facilities where punishments can still be psychologically and physically harsh, violence endemic, and the well-intentioned textbook philosophy behind “rehabilitation” violated regularly with impunity and indifference.
In an excellent essay a month ago, rflctammt wrote here about a chilling February 2017 report on the Colorado situation: “Bound and Broken: How DYC’s Culture of Violence is Hurting Colorado’s Kids and What to Do About It.” The data in that report includes the Industrial School, now called (after two name changes) the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center.
The authors found that violence has been soaring in the state’s Division of Youth Corrections. Fights, assaults, and complaints about violence have all been on the rise, as have attacks by youth against staff and staff against youth. DYC staff “routinely use physical force and pain” to control their charges, the youngest being 11 years old. A common punishment is to throw a youth to a carpeted floor and then push their face across the carpet hard enough to create rug burns. Knee strikes to legs and abdomen are common, as is the manipulation of nerve pressure points.
In the one-year period between January 2015 and January 2016, staff physically restrained youth at least 3,611 times, employing in the majority of those instances handcuffs, shackles, or the WRAP, a painful, full-body straitjacket that has been banned in Arkansas after the state’s Juvenile Ombudsman labeled its use “torture.” During the same one-year period, youth were placed in solitary confinement more than 2,200 times.
Something that isn’t included in the report is the fact—the sadly unsurprising fact—that the percentage of black and Latino youth held in DYC facilities is disproportionately greater than their percentage in the Colorado population, while the percentage of white youth is considerably less than their proportion of the population.
I wish I had the words to express my full range of rage and sadness over this news.
There’s an alternative: the Missouri approach. Compared with other states, Missouri’s incarcerated youth are four-and-a-half times less likely to be assaulted, 17 times less likely to be placed in mechanical restraints, 200 times less likely to be placed in solitary confinement, and corrections staff are 13 times less likely to be assaulted. A number of Colorado state legislators, led by Democrat Pete Lee, are trying to bring the Missouri model to Colorado. Here’s Lee’s Sept. 15, 2017, op-ed on the subject in the Denver Post, titled “Colorado’s juvenile detention system has failed to improve.”
Thinking about all this reminds me of what the judge said at my sentencing in 1957: “Incorrigible.” Age 10 and I was already lost, according to his assessment.
Decades later, in the late 1980s, on a ride-along with a pair of white LAPD cops as part of my newspaper editorial-writing job, we stopped at a corner where an African-American boy of about 9 or 10 stood. The passenger-side cop got out of the car, went over to the boy and asked where his older brother was. The intimidation factor of that 6’ 2” well-muscled, well-armed cop and that skinny kid was a striking contrast to the Norman Rockwell version of America. The kid wasn’t talking. And he didn’t talk when the cop tightened his hand on his shoulder. Soon, the cop gave up, and got back in the cruiser. As we rolled away, he said: “Well, that kid’s a lost cause. They’re just incorrigible.”
Another 10-year-old without a future. Or rather, in this cop’s estimation, just one of a bunch of worthless, dark-skinned “theys.” I had a lively interchange with him resulting in my being unwelcome on future LAPD ride-alongs.
There are still far too many Americans in authority who have that cop’s attitude about supposedly incorrigible juveniles, which—lots of people apparently need to be reminded of—is a fancy term for … children.
Full disclosure: I needed reforming.
I was headed down a perilous road. When my grandmother who had raised me died, my mother moved us first to Nebraska, then Colorado. I was not yet 9 years old. And over the next several months in Denver, I attached myself to five older boys—all of them Latino—and joined them in long string of thieving, lying, cheating, bullying, and truancy. A truant officer was my first contact with the law. There were several more. I was caught shoplifting and got off with a warning from the store clerk. That same week we “rang” the registers to steal money from the same store and two others in that era before computers took over and cash drawers still opened with a push of a key and ring of a bell.
Then we got really stupid. The oldest among us, 15-year-old Ángel, decided we would rob a gas station. We were excited. Ángel had the only weapon, a hunting knife. Undisguised, we kind of stormed the place when no cars were around, with Ángel in the lead. By the time the police arrived, the octogenerian who ran the place had us lined up facing the wall, our backs to the shotgun he had pulled from beneath the counter.
There was no way out of this. I already had a sheet, and now it included attempted armed robbery. At the time, kids as young as 8 with lesser offenses were being shipped to Golden. My mother and stepfather showed up for the court hearing, but only because the lawyer handling the case for all six of us boys said it might ease the sentence if parents were present in the room. Two of my fellow gangsters were foster kids and their temporary parents did not show up. But we all got the same “indefinite” sentence anyway. That could have meant incarceration for six months or until we were 21.
As noted, I needed reforming. What I got was anything but.
Not that it’s surprising, but the “Bound and Broken” report proves kids are being incarcerated now—in the 21st century—who aren’t getting what they need either. Given the collection of jackals running the U.S. Department of Justice these days, no serious federal help in this regard can be expected beyond a few grants for experimental programs. Under the current regime, the DOJ is working to take us back to the good ol’ days of criminal justice, for youth and adults alike.
I was housed during my stay in one of the Industrial School’s “cottages.” It was actually a nondescript three-story slab of a building turned into a barracks. There were no private rooms. We ate together, we showered together, and we shat together, as there were no doors on the toilet stalls. We had only one thing we could call our own: our toothbrush. Anyone who checked into the place with the only other personal possession we were allowed—a framed photo of family members—lost it the first time he went to sleep.
Twenty-three months is a long time to be locked up when you’re 10. A lot of things can happen. Things that shape you or warp you. Four experiences affected me most. The summary of them below is chronological, not ranked by how much or how long each affected me.
The original idea behind the Industrial School wasn’t wholly awful. In 1881, W.R. Sampson, the school’s superintendent wrote:
Experience has taught that bad boys (so called) can, in a great majority of cases, be thoroughly reformed and saved to their State, made valuable citizens, a credit to themselves, an honor to the community in which they dwell, and living witnesses of the wisdom and humanity of the philanthropic efforts of the State in their behalf. The bad boy, as a rule, is not the lazy, indifferent laggard among the boys; but, more frequently, a sharp, quick, enterprising youth, full of vigorous energy, whose nature needs a strong steady home government, and wise, kindly discipline. These favoring surroundings being absent, the boy becomes his own master. His natural bent leads first to mischief, then to sin and crime; and if his downward course is not arrested by wise interference of the State, he becomes a pest in society, and a continued subject of court and prison discipline.
Now, one can (and I do) take issue with several assumptions in that assessment. But that was nearly 140 years ago, and I don’t think I’m gullible because I see someone with a good heart behind much of what’s in that paragraph. It’s one of hope, not incorrigibility. Unfortunately, that philosophy wasn’t the practice, and as already noted, 60 years after the school’s founding, the staff still chained boys to the walls. And other stuff.
The most brutal physical practices were stopped after the 1941 scandal.
But one that survived the crackdown at the Industrial School was the apprenticeship program. They didn’t call it that. But they did pretend to visiting officials that they had one. In fact, the Industrial School was so named because it was supposed to prepare the boys inside for the military or factory work. Early on maybe they did a better job of that. By the time I was locked up there, however, such trade-school training was pathetic.
We were taught regular subjects by teachers hired from public school ranks. A few were good. Most were burn-out cases or the kind of people who should never have been teachers in the first place. This was especially bad since most of us were, as the saying goes, performing below our expected grade level. In addition to the Three Rs, propaganda in the guise of history and civics, and wee bits of science, we had three hours a day of "training."
For the oldest boys, this meant basic instruction in the carpentry shop or the machine shop, where some of the tools seemed to have been hanging since the place was built. For us younger ones much of what we did was not related to a trade, but rather working in the laundry or kitchen or doing clean-up. However, twice a week every week from my second day at Golden through the entire time I was incarcerated, we were "instructed" in a stultifying activity meant to prepare us for something similar on a factory assembly line. As if one hour were not enough to teach us everything we needed to know about the process, we spent years at it.
On the allotted days, we sat at a long wooden table, an arm's length from the boys to our left and our right. No talking allowed. Once we settled in, a few other boys brought around a cart loaded with large cardboard boxes. Each of these was two-thirds full of assorted nails, screws, washers, and nuts. These were dumped in front of us. And our job for the next two hours was to sort them. Not so bad as a flogging, but surely delivered with the same intent, to break our spirit, deaden our brains and teach us to follow instructions. At the end of each session, all the nails, screws, etc., were swept out of our neat stacks on the table back into their jumble in the boxes, ready for the next sorting. If we had been digging holes and filling them, at least we would have gotten a workout instead of making both our brains and our butts numb.
Within weeks of our arrival, all the new check-ins were commanded to undergo a version of what social scientists would later call the scared straight approach. We were taken in a bus with barred windows to Buena Vista State Reformatory, a prison at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. At the time, this medium-security lock-up held boys and men ages 16 to 30. Many of the inmates were tough characters, and we got a strong dose in our day-long stay about what it would be like to be imprisoned with them, eat the same food they did, follow the same numbing routine, face the same thuggish guards.
Four months after I arrived in Golden. I was raped. It was Feb. 21. I was 11 years old. I’m not going to go into details except to say he was bigger and older than I. I did not report it. But I, or rather we, ultimately retaliated with a beating. “We,” because I was not his only target. We were never caught. Or maybe the “counselors” knew and just let us get away with it. Thanks to feminist analyses of rape, I long ago came to terms with what happened to me then and how I responded, outwardly and inwardly.
At the time, however, I determined never again to be unable to defend myself. Consequently, although it took many months, I made the object pictured on the right in the metal shop. It's a “zip gun.” Built to fire a .25 caliber bullet. The "barrel" is piece of brass pipe. Inside is a powerful spring on the end of which is a metal pin, the firing pin. Though hugely inaccurate, this is a deadly weapon meant for close-range use. But it's dangerous to the person who fires it as well. A shredded barrel or spring and bolt blown out the rear are the most obvious and lethal possibilities. It's been fired at cardboard targets about 20 times, but not for more than 50 years. I keep it to remind me of how incredibly stupid I was. And how lucky never to have used that homemade firearm for its intended purpose.
That’s my story. Or part of it. I survived. But that’s because I was lucky to have three good mentors after I was released.
Today other boys, and of course girls, are having their own stories shaped in youth institutions across the country. Or, in a practice I consider to be a crime of its own, in sections of institutions meant for adults.
Colorado isn’t alone in mistreating youth offenders, and it isn’t the worst. But that’s a low bar. Here is an example of what has happened quite recently in Colorado:
Some young people currently held in DYC facilities were previously subjected to illegal DYC “Special Management Plans” that allowed children to be held in isolation for up to 23 hours a day, for weeks or even months at a time. These plans were in place at DYC facilities as recently as 2015. Youth subjected to these plans are likely to refuse further attempts to place them alone in a locked room. When staff then lay hands on the youth to force him or her into an isolation cell, a physical altercation can result, putting young people and staff in danger.
For example, David was previously placed on a DYC plan that required isolation for 23 hours per day, allowing David out of his locked cell only for “one hour out” and to shower. In his isolation cell, David had only his bed mat, a blanket, one book, one roll of toilet paper, one crayon, and a single sheet of paper. He was not permitted to attend school, and only received an occasional packet of schoolwork. If he completed the packet, and it was actually collected, he would not get it back, so he did not know if he had done the work correctly. At times, David “progressed” on his special management plan and was allowed to leave his cell in wrist to waist restraints—hands in handcuffs, connected to a belt around his middle. When he had not earned these “extra hours out” through good behavior, David was returned to “23 and 1” status. David was in isolation for 23 hours a day for weeks and sometimes months at a time, on and off, for over two years. David reports that he would become frustrated in isolation, but when he yelled at staff that he wanted to be let out, staff would simply cover the window of his cell.
After an investigation revealed that DYC was illegally placing youth like David in isolation, DYC finally removed David from the plan. David remembers that he then learned for the first time that [the facility] he was being held in was on a campus with a school and dining hall.
While going that far is now illegal in Colorado youth facilities, the “Bound and Broken” report includes plenty of other appalling examples of mistreatment. Here’s the story of the WRAP:
The WRAP physical restraint device is used in at least nine of the twelve secure DYC facilities. The device is a full body restraint akin to a straitjacket. To place a young person in the WRAP, DYC staff put the youth in handcuffs, bind the youth’s legs together, and then wrap the youth in the 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 the WRAP restraint. DYC reports that during the thirteen month period from January 2016 through January 2017, DYC staff have placed a young person in the WRAP at least 253 times.
Colorado is one of the few juvenile justice systems in the country that uses the WRAP restraint. Colorado’s nine DYC facilities that utilize the WRAP account for almost a quarter of all the juvenile justice facilities in the country which have contracted to use this restraint. Other jurisdictions have recognized the harm that the WRAP causes to children: in 2014, the Arkansas Juvenile Ombudsman investigated the use of the WRAP in the Yell County Juvenile Detention Center, and called the device “torture.” During his investigation, the Ombudsman subjected himself to the device and helmet, finding it was difficult to breath[e] and that it increased anxiety. Less than two weeks after receiving the Ombudsman’s letter, the Arkansas Division of Youth Services banned the use of the WRAP, commenting that the WRAP has “no known therapeutic uses,” exposes youth to ridicule and humiliation, and presents a serious risk of harm to youth.
While several other states operate youth facilities that are as bad or worse than Colorado’s, other states have developed programs based on the crucial fact that its charges are children with traumatic backgrounds who definitely don’t need more trauma added to their experiences. One of those is the Missouri Approach, considered to be the “gold standard for humane and effective treatment of incarcerated youth”:
[It] is a trauma-informed therapeutic group treatment approach toward incarcerated youth devised and implemented by the Missouri Division of Youth Services over the course of the past three decades. Like Colorado, Missouri houses youth up to the age of 21 with the rest of its juvenile population, and works with youth who have been found guilty of serious crimes, are gang involved, have demonstrated violent behavior, and have significant histories of trauma. [...]
In Missouri, the goal is change, not punishment. Instead of “behavioral compliance,”Missouri staff focus on “internalized change.” Young people join a closely supervised group of 10 to 12 peers, with two dedicated staff called “youth specialists.” Youth spend virtually all day with their group—sleeping, eating, studying, and exercising together. When youth engage in disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behavior, they are called upon to explain their thoughts and feelings to the group and reflect on how their actions impact others.
In Missouri, they don’t use the WRAP, they don’t use force, they greatly limit use of restraints, and they never leave a child alone in a locked room,
The results: Far less violence, lots more rehabilitation.
As noted above, Democratic state Rep. Pete Lee has been working with the local ACLU and other state legislators to bring the Missouri approach to Colorado.
The authors of the “Bound and Broken” report recommend a number of policy options:
1. Bring a Missouri Approach pilot program to DYC, under the guidance of Missouri YouthServices Institute, to begin within six months. Colorado’s children cannot wait.
2. Prohibit physical management methods that harm and re-traumatize children.
- Prohibit the WRAP.
- Prohibit pain compliance techniques.
- Prohibit the use of leg irons and wrist-to-waist restraints.
- Prohibit staff from physical contact with disobedient youth who pose no immediate threat of harm to self or others.
3. End the practice of isolating children who act out.
4. Provide intensive training and retraining to all staff in the provision of trauma-informed care and build a positive culture based on relationships, not punishment or control.
5. Provide staff the tools they need to de-escalate and, when necessary, physically manage escalated youth in a manner that does not harm youth or staff, such as the methods taught in Safe Crisis Management.
6. Increase transparency of DYC. The public has a right to know the circumstances under which DYC uses force on the youth in its care. Even with the passage of the DYC transparency law, DYC refuses to provide such information. Should DYC persist in its refusal to disclose information about use of force, the legislature should amend the law to require DYC to provide such information in response to a public information request,without divulging confidential information about individual young people.
The Denver Post reported that “Colorado’s youth corrections system will end use of the wrap, a restraint similar to a straitjacket, by July 2018.”
In Colorado or anywhere else, all the written policy statements and other reforms will amount to nothing without a commitment from staff and staff leadership to stop treating incarcerated youth as incorrigibles and stop pretending that they are just miniature adults.
For more information on Rep. Lee, please visit his website. Lee is running for the state Senate in 2018.