A new report from the Colorado Child Safety Coalition describes “a culture of violence” among staff of the state’s Division of Youth Corrections (DYC). Youths held in the system undergo solitary confinement, shackles, a straightjacket called “the WRAP” and pain compliance techniques such as “knee strikes” and the use of pressure points.
Youths were placed in solitary confinement 2, 240 times over a 13-month period, which is an increase despite a 2016 law to reduce the practice. Restraint by handcuffs, shackles or a full-body straightjacket was used 3,611 times, often with pain compliance techniques. This happened in a population of about 8,000 youths, ages 13 to 21, at Colorado’s 12 “secure youth corrections facilities.”
The Denver Post reported on the detailed investigation, which DYC director Anders Jacobson called “inflammatory.” Nevertheless, he is already moving to reduce the use of force and seclusion.
“The investigation relied on internal data on violence and restraint collected by the Division of Youth Corrections and obtained by researchers, medical and corrections reports, including videos, released after incarcerated youth signed waivers, and interviews with 21 youths who were held in 11 facilities. Scrutiny of youth corrections by community watchdogs and some lawmakers has intensified in the last few years as reports of riots and abuse surfaced from Spring Creek Youth Services Center in Colorado Springs, but this investigation is the most comprehensive and damaging.”
The facilities, which are understaffed in violation of federal standards, first attempt to use verbal de-escalation, but as a last resort will use the WRAP. This restraint is banned in other states, including Arkansas where the child ombudsman called it “torture.” Combined with the “spit mask,” the entire restraint conjures images of Hannibal Lecter.
“The wrap — used 253 times in 13 months, more than once every other day — requires handcuffing a youth’s hands and binding his legs together. The youth is wrapped up, the entire length of the body, and a strap attached to the chest and legs forces the youth into a seated position. In some cases, staff also cover the youth’s head and face with a cloth called a “spit mask.””
Some teens described being kept in the WRAP for one to three hours. It was used on a child who attempted to hang himself with a shirt, and another who was “sitting quietly while tears streaming down face.”
The spit mask can make breathing difficult, especially with a bloody nose, as one youth described.
“I was trying to breathe to talk to them and say ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ 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.”
Despite the best efforts of DYC to hide what really goes on in their facilities — including refusing to release their descriptions of uses of force — researchers found disturbing patterns. Staff use pressure points on the head, neck, wrist, tibia, calves and jaw to force teens to the ground.
“Staff use their knees to strike youths in the legs, stomach and side of the body, documenting strikes to the “femoral nerve point” or “common peroneal,” a nerve in the lower leg, the report says.
Division records confirmed youth reports of head injuries, concussions, rug burns, shoulder separation, bruises and bleeding after altercations between staff and youths, researchers said. Teens reported having their heads slammed to the floor or into furniture, feeling dizzy and being placed on concussion watch. One said staff would treat them nicely after realizing “how much damage” they caused, asking “Can I clean your face? Can I get you a new shirt?””
There are undoubtedly troubled youths and fights at the CYM, and they often have unfortunate pasts of abuse and neglect. But subjecting them to more torment is no way to “correct” a youth.
The Denver Post notes that violence, meaning assaults and fights, has increased 42 percent from 2013 to 2016. These youths are probably not some unusual ultra-violent group, but could rather be the product of the ‘culture of violence’ perpetrated by Colorado’s DYM staff.
The coalition behind the report – consisting of ACLU Colorado, Disability Law Colorado, the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender and the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center – calls for the WRAP and solitary confinement to be banned, and urges Colorado to look to Missouri for guidance on reform.
“In Missouri, sleeping quarters more resemble dorm rooms than cells. Youths can have comforters, wear their own clothes instead of prison scrubs, and decorate with their own belongings. The goal is “internalized change” instead of “behavioral compliance.” Missouri has significantly lower rates of violence and injury to staff and youths compared with other states.”
These are kids, after all – not hardened adult criminals. Their developing brains are more malleable to the conditions in which they live. Sadly, Colorado’s incarcerated kids are being exposed to the brutality of America’s police state at an early age.