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Culture Of Violence Intensifies In Colorado Youth Detention Facilities Despite Reforms

Young people incarcerated in Colorado are brutalized, isolated, and restrained in mechanical devices by staff. The youth are held in facilities where rehabilitation and treatment are not possible, according to a new report by the Child Safety Coalition.

Despite reforms following a 2014 investigation, which concluded the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections (DYC) illegally isolated children for long periods of time and used pain compliance techniques against them, this new report shows abuse has escalated.

The coalition believes the DYC is “plagued by a punitive and damaging culture that makes it extremely difficult to build the positive relationships necessary for effective treatment,” and the coalition believes changing that culture must be the focal point of any reform effort.

Brutalized By Staff

Colorado youth detention facilities saw a 42% increase in fights between 2013 and 2016. In the past three months, two DYC staff were charged in court, including one with felony assault and child abuse in February. One youth described said the violence between staff and young people is akin to violence among “rival gangs.”

“This is a place that is supposed to keep us safe because we can’t be in the community,” one child said. “But if I was in the community, I wouldn’t be getting bruises every day and be being beat up on by grown people.”

“Children, unable to trust DYC, are contacting outside organizations for help,” the report states. Meanwhile, staff are “calling legislators and the media to express fear of violence in the facilities.” Some staff are so afraid they are “asking for pepper spray and stun guns to use on children in their care.”

Many of the children are victims of trauma and abuse. They reported instinctively pulling away from staff who move to grab them, leading to even more aggression from staff. They said they were grabbed for refusing to move from a chair, give staff a pencil or book, or for reaching over a counter for juice and milk.

Force was used against children, who were passively refusing staff directives.

“I went and sat in the chair,” recalled one child, who refused an order to go to isolation. “My intention of sitting in the chair was I thought that maybe they wouldn’t restrain me in the chair. If I was sitting down not looking violent just sitting in a chair I thought ‘they can’t really restrain me like this.’”

But staff threw him to the ground and used pressure points and knee strikes before taking him to isolation. An incident report confirmed staff touched him first, stating that when ““verbal processing” became “repetitive,” “physical response was initiated.””

Pain compliance techniques are used, including bending children’s wrists to force them to the ground. More than half of the young people surveyed had experienced pain compliance, many of whom touched their necks when discussing pressure points. Staff used fingers, fists, and knees to hit children in the ear, head, neck, nose, chin, calf, shoulder blades, and arm.

Young people suffered from bruises, scratches, friction burns, separated joints, and closed head injuries, including concussions. Some said staff purposely rubbed children’s faces on the carpet to cause rug burn.

Staff often apologize after using force against children. “When [staff] see how much damage they do, they say, ‘Can I clean your face? Can I get you a new shirt?’ When they see how much they actually hurt you,” one youth said. “When they are nice to you I feel like it’s because they don’t want you to tell anyone.”

There are no cameras in the school area of the detention centers, where young people are brutalized by “day programming” staff.

“If you’re going to be restrained, you’d rather have it happen on the unit than at school,” one child said, because day programming staff will “[mess] you up because there are no cameras. When there’s no cameras, staff are…grimy.”

Some day programming staff are allegedly mixed martial arts fighters and have shown children videos of their fights. One child said two different staff discussed their martial arts training with him. These staff had “anger issues” and went “way overboard,” using the children “as punching bags.”

Injury rates for young people and staff exceed the national average and the division’s own goals. DYC efforts to hire more staff and and increase funding do not seem to have had an impact, even as facility population has declined.

Locked In Restraints

DYC restrained children 3,611 times between January 2016 and January 2017, at an average of nearly 10 times per day. The data is assumed to represent a low estimate because it does not fully account for the division’s three private facilities, where youth face higher rates of abuse.

Sixty percent of restraints involved mechanical devices like handcuffs, shackles, or the WRAP.

The WRAP is a controversial restraining device that straps people into a seated upright position, their legs straight out in front and hands tied behind the back. A spit mask and helmet are sometimes applied.

The WRAP is advertised as having a calming effect. Its makers claim it can help prevent injury and can be used on children and adults. Yet mounting evidence and testimony, including that of incarcerated youth in Colorado, suggests it can provoke injury, stress, and mental anguish.

The DYC used the WRAP on children 253 times between January 2016 and 2017. Over half of young people surveyed said they had experienced the WRAP. Most said it was used on them more than once. One youth was placed in the WRAP 17 times.

Many children said they were in the WRAP for between one to three hours. DYC refused to provide data on how long children were held in restraints, but the coalition found restraints used for 30 minutes to over 2 hours.

The WRAP was often applied too tightly, restricting blood flow and causing pain by locking the body in awkward positions. Most children said their legs went numb within 10 minutes. Some said they were unable to walk afterward.

Deeply sad and suicidal children were placed in the WRAP, including one child who sat “quietly while tears [streamed] down his face.” That child was left in restraints for an additional 40 minutes.

Youth were kept in the WRAP while injured, including one child who had an active bloody nose. “I was trying to breathe to talk to them and say ‘stop, stop, stop.’” the child said. “They wouldn’t listen so they put the spit mask on me. I was trying to breathe and blood was filling up in my mouth and coming up in my nose. And I was trying to spit it out, but I couldn’t. And I was crying.”

Held In Isolation

Youth were placed in solitary confinement 2,240 times between January 2016 and 2017. Most were between 15 and 17 years old, but children as young as 11 were also placed in isolation.

Isolation rooms typically consist of a “tiny, completely barren cell with only a metal toilet, a metal bed frame, a sleeping mat, a blanket, and a roll of toilet paper.” Despite 2016 reforms intended to curb the use of long-term solitary confinement in Colorado youth detention facilities, isolation increased.

Children spent anywhere from a few hours to several days in solitary. Every child interviewed who experienced isolation reported suffering.

One child, who was “crying, angry, frustrated, and screaming after over 45 minutes in isolation,” was left alone and discovered an hour later in the cell with his shirt around his neck. He was then placed on suicide watch.

Isolation may re-traumatize children, who have a history of being abused and neglected. “My dad had put a lock on the outside of my door,” reflected one child, who had been placed in isolation. “He purposely got a doorknob with a lock on the outside so he could lock me in there. He would lock me up for a couple hours.”

Children were isolated while staff cleaned the pod and held meetings, or during shower time. DYC also used “time outs” to isolate children. During time out, a youth is locked in their own room or in an isolation cell.

While DYC does not count time out as solitary confinement, a state auditor said it was “just as restrictive” because kids were locked in a room at the direction of staff. DYC does not track time outs. Auditors are unable to quantify or monitor their use.

Children were locked in their cells for 10 hours on weeknights and 12 hours on weekends for “sleeping hours.” At some facilities, this began at 8:30 PM.

During “sleeping hours,” staff often refused to let youth leave their rooms to use the bathroom. Some youth had to “urinate in their cups, on their clothing, or on the floor of their rooms.”

Youth are isolated through “special management plans,” which limit their participation in programming and restrict their interactions with other children. These plans raise concerns that that the division has “replaced its past pattern of illegally holding children in long-term in-room solitary confinement with similarly isolating practices in empty pods.”

One special management plan required a child to “sleep in an isolation cell, complete morning hygiene alone in his isolation cell, complete schoolwork and lunch alone in an empty classroom, eat meals on the unit alone with one staff member present, have no contact with peers, and take recreation “one on one with staff on the pod.”

“Children must feel safe to engage in treatment and rehabilitation,” the report declares. “If the environment around them is free of danger, young people are more likely to let down their guard and open themselves up to a positive relationship with staff and with their treatment team.”

Is Rehabilitation Possible?

The report recommends the division implement the “Missouri Approach,” named after that state’s trauma-informed juvenile justice model. The approach “relies on a culture of caring that builds strong relationships between youth and their peers and between youth and staff.”

“Children are treated like children and placed in home-like environments that promote safety so youth can let their guard down and engage in treatment,” the report explains. In Missouri, incarcerated young people “sleep in dorm-style rooms with comforters, wear their own clothing, decorate their personal spaces with items from home.” Common spaces are “attractive and comfortable.

The “Missouri Approach” involves no physical harm, no isolation, and no restraint.  The goal is to achieve “internalized change,” not inflict punishment.

“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.”

Such interactions are not possible in Colorado facilities. That is because multiple youth have negative impressions of staff.

Most young people felt disliked and believed staff were bullies. Staff cursed at and insulted children, calling them “bitch,” “fat ass,” “worthless,” “piece of shit,” “cry baby,” and “unwanted.” Children felt defeated and demoralized, and they lacked a sense of self-worth.

“There was a period where I was doing well and the therapist said, ‘This is just his honeymoon period.’ They assumed I would do bad again,” one child reported.

There is no doubt the “Missouri Approach” would bring radical and welcome change to Colorado’s youth detention facilities. It would mark a step forward in caring for children thrust into the system, instead of merely punishing them.

But if the goal is to help children in Colorado, there is something else to consider about making detention facilities more trauma-informed. While these investments improve conditions, they do not address the issues plaguing the environments and communities to which children must return. Instead, they tacitly accept that children will fall through the cracks and end up incarcerated.

While children can benefit from learning how to “internalize change,” and while they should receive compassionate care and treatment for mental illness while incarcerated, efforts have to be made to divert children from the system by making public investments to remedy the many social and economic issues plaguing communities, where these children will eventually return.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.