Colorado Policy Going Soft on Violent Juvenile Offenders Makes Life Hard for Detention Staff
By Arthur Kane | Watchdog.org
Attacks on juvenile detention staff in Colorado skyrocketed starting in July, including an inmate knocking detention staff unconscious, a female inmate head-butting a worker causing a concussion and one inmate beating a 65-year-old employee nearly to death with a pillow case full of rocks.
Between July and October, a Watchdog.org investigation found, 91 juvenile detention staffers were injured in incidents with youths – nearly twice the average of any other four-month period since November 2012, according to state figures obtained under open records laws.
The increase of staff injuries started about the time state officials instituted a policy banning most seclusion to deal with violent youths.
State Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said the numbers obtained by Watchdog.org clearly demonstrate the Colorado Department of Human Services is mismanaging its youth detention facilities.
“This is very concerning,” said Lambert, who chairs the powerful Joint Budget Committee and has previously expressed concerns about increased violence at the Colorado Springs-based Spring Creek Youth Services Center. “There are major management issues throughout the Department of Human Services.”
Robert Werthwein, acting director of CDHS Division of Youth Corrections, said he doesn’t know exactly why attacks on staff increased in the past few months, and there probably isn’t one reason.
“As you know, we have a wide range of different kids that come from very difficult backgrounds, and we’re trying to serve them and provide them the right skills,” he said.
But despite not knowing the cause, the division’s solution is to hire 208 more employees at a cost of nearly $10 million over the next two fiscal years, the division’s budget request says. CDHS concedes the inmate population hasn’t increased since June, but in the past year juvenile detention facilities have seen more gang-affiliated inmates and youths with complex behavioral problems enter the facilities.
The staff is necessary, Werthwein argued, to bring staff-to-inmate ratios in line with what is required by a 2003 federal prison rape prevention law. Now, Colorado facilities have between a one-to-10 and one-to-14 staff-to-inmate ratio during daytime hours; the law requires a one-to-eight ratio, the request says.
“When the ratio of staff to youth is better, it allows staff to work one on one with youth,” Werthwein said in a phone interview.
But Lambert said there has to be accountability from CDHS for the problems at the facility. “I’m not seeing someone say the buck stops here or anywhere,” he said.
Werthwein said CDHS is working to fix problems.
“We are taking responsibility,” he said. “We’re willing to look at any improvements to make the system stronger.”
Despite more potential state employees, Colorado WINS, the union representing state workers, and its executive director, Tim Markham, failed to return repeated calls and email from Watchdog.org to discuss attacks on state workers.
Four facilities — Lookout Mountain, Mountain View, Platte Valley and Spring Creek — have had the most attacks and the largest increases in staff injuries, state figures show.
While attacks on staff happen nearly every month at some of the state’s 10 youth detention facilities, injuries to staff because of youth actions between July and October are nearly double the previous record of 53 incidents between March and June, CDHS records show.
CDHS declined to provide details of the incidents, citing child protection laws. But Watchdog.org obtained reports from local police, who were called to many of the assaults.
The reports read like scenes from the cable prison drama “Oz.”
The most high-profile incident happened the night of Aug. 30 at Lookout Mountain when Zachary Curtis Oliver, 17, snuck up and bludgeoned a 65-year-old staff member with a pillow case full of rocks, cracking the employee’s skull, police and court records say.
Oliver, who was charged with attempted murder, and three other youths, who were also charged with serious offenses, took a hacksaw, baseball bat and other items and cut the fence at the Golden, Colo., facility, court records show. Police said the youths were apprehended within hours after gathering in a park adjacent to a police station in a neighboring suburb.
Police and state records also show:
The increase in violence is not just a problem for staff — it’s costing the taxpayers of the municipalities where the facilities are located.
Golden Police Capt. Daryl Hollingsworth said one of the city’s detectives spends nearly all of his time investigating crimes at Lookout Mountain. The city has four full-time detectives, one half-time staffer and another who works with the drug task force.
“Unfortunately, for the City of Golden, our taxpayers are burdened with this facility,” he said.
A July 18, 2014 CDHS memo says, “SECLUSION SHALL NEVER BE USED AS PART OF A SPECIAL MANAGEMENT PROGRAM.” Special management programs, which now include restricting inmates from certain programs, providing incentives for good behavior and giving supportive counseling, are the main way staff handles violent inmates.
The department defines SMP as “the placement of a juvenile onto a specialized, behavior management program for the purpose of controlling and affecting behavior which is considered to be (a) safety risk to the individual juvenile or others, or for assisting juveniles requiring specialized care.”
Werthwein said he doesn’t know whether the policy to end seclusion increased attacks. Seclusion is used to control inmates during attacks, but the youths are let out as soon as the situation is under control, he said.
“I haven’t looked at the stats and done an analysis of attacks and injuries,” he said. “It’s difficult to narrow it down to one specific thing.”
But when Watchdog.org told Hollingsworth about the timing of the policy change and the increase of attacks, he said it makes him “wonder.”
Wayne Bear, president Council for Juvenile Detention, said there’s no evidence that long-term seclusion decreases violence and it may increase youth suicides. But an outright ban on seclusion can also be problematic.
“As an association, we believe we would support the use of isolation to create a safe environment, cool down the juveniles and regain control and then reintegrate him into population,” he said. “That seems to be an effective way to get the job done.”
Lambert said management at the top has to take the issue seriously, or the governor should appoint new people to head the detention centers and the whole of CDHS.
“It just seems to be a pattern that needs to be broken,” he said.