One year after two Colorado Springs locked facilities for juvenile offenders swapped populations of those being detained awaiting legal proceedings and those who’ve been adjudicated and committed, employees at Spring Creek Youth Services Center say problems from its troubled past have resurfaced, again creating a “chaotic” and “unsafe” situation.
“It’s a very toxic environment,” said Emma Cherry, who quit her job as a state teacher and worked her last day at Spring Creek Wednesday.
“Obviously, they’re all kids who have been through trauma, and this facility is re-traumatizing these kids,” Cherry said. “You’d think we’re an adult prison, when we’re supposed to be a treatment facility for juveniles.”
Among the assertions made by Cherry and two other current Spring Creek employees who spoke to The Gazette:
• Staff members smuggle in drugs for the young offenders.
• Staff are encouraged not to write incident reports, and many that are submitted are either downgraded or dismissed to avoid documentation.
• Youths repeatedly threaten and sexually harass staff with consequences that do not improve their behavior. Sex acts occur between youths and between youths and staff.
“All of this is being swept under the rug, with the attitude that if you don’t write it down on paper, it isn’t happening,” said a current Spring Creek employee who asked not to be identified in meeting with The Gazette, citing fear of retaliation.
Fights and assaults systemwide at youth correctional facilities in Colorado.
However, officials say numbers show that the system reforms initiated five years ago to reduce the use of solitary confinement and restraints in favor of a non-physical and therapeutic regimen are working. But they acknowledge that restructuring takes time.
“When we see issues arising at any particular Division of Youth Services facility, we find each time that the problem is not that the prior reforms were the wrong ones — the problem is that the reforms, and true culture change, have yet to be fully achieved,” said Elise Logemann, juvenile justice policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which has been involved with the reforms.
It’s a message they’ll keep reiterating, Logemann said, because the “punitive, correctional approach has been widely discredited by national research and has already demonstrably failed our children here in Colorado.”
Reports released last week reflect decreased recidivism rates and noticeably less use of isolation, handcuffs and shackles at the state’s 12 secure, residential correctional centers for juveniles, said Anders Jacobson, director of the Colorado Division of Youth Services.
“They’re making steady progress to get to where they need to be,” he said. “We know it’s a process; there’s no end line in this game of reform and getting to best practices every day.”
One disturbing trend is continuing, which employees say is part of the tumultuous saga inside Spring Creek.
Statewide, more juveniles are committing violent crimes of murder, attempted murder, armed robbery and assault, according to statistics released in January. The spike in crime severity is coupled with youths entering custody with myriad mental illnesses and substance use.
“The complexity continues to increase,” Jacobson acknowledged, but said a division priority is to ensure assessment tools identify proper treatment, including for behavioral health, and individual improvement plans for youths are followed.
“The goal is for them to get out and have a better life,” he said.
But employees say many of today’s locked-up teens aren’t afraid of the consequences of hitting a guard, sexually harassing a female worker or threatening workers.
Many times, youths who have acted out don’t want to do the required “refocus,” in which they are to think about what they’ve done and commit to nonviolence and social responsibility, said one Spring Creek worker.
“It’s a joke,” she said. “We’re supposed to have a conversation. I don’t want to have a conversation with a kid who wants to take me down and kill me or have sex with me.”
A sign outside Spring Creek Youth Services Center in Colorado Springs warns that contraband is not allowed inside, yet employees say illegal materials are uncovered regularly inside the corrections facility.
Police aren’t being called
Since the last week of June 2020 — when Spring Creek switched from housing short-term detainees to longer-term committed males and females ages 11 to 20 — employees say internal discord has escalated .
Illicit drugs have been rampant inside, Cherry said.
That comes despite all centers being locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year, meaning relatives or friends could not visit in person.
Some employees provide illegal drugs to bribe teens or calm them, Cherry said. Friends or family on the outside pay staff who sell drugs to kids on the inside using a phone app, she charged.
An incident report The Gazette obtained from staff members details the discovery in May of an “unknown black substance in a small plastic bag” that was hidden in restroom plumbing in the commons area of a residential pod. Presumably black tar heroin or hash, employees said.
The concealed stash also contained aluminum foil, a 42-foot rope handmade out of sheets and T-shirts, copper wire, batteries, smoking pipes, rocks, a jump rope and a black sweatshirt, according to the report workers provided.
The items indicated a possible escape was in the works, employees said.
During a search of juvenile quarters at Spring Creek, staff also found “an empty, clear, small plastic shampoo bottle with a substance that smelled of marijuana,” the report says, adding that the items were turned over to administrators for testing. However, that incident on May 11 was not included in Spring Creek incident reports The Gazette requested from the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Another event, involving a juvenile pushing an employee down descending stairs, spitting on another worker and resisting restraint, was among the reports from May 11 that the state released to the newspaper.
It is unknown whether the report regarding the uncovered contraband no longer exists, was overlooked, or was simply not included in the requested documents. Whether certain incident reports the Gazette requested and did not receive are filed with the Colorado Department of Human Services is unknown because only certain types of reports can be released, under state law.
And according to Colorado Springs Police logs, authorities were not called to Spring Creek about that situation.
Authorities also were not contacted, police premise reports show, when a security officer, Jacob Sui, was fired on April 12 for “unsatisfactory job performance,” according to a disciplinary file the Colorado Department of Human Services supplied in response to a Gazette request.
Sui was placed on paid administrative leave on March 30, after an allegation surfaced accusing Sui of “bringing contraband into the facility for youth, mainly drugs,” the documents state.
Juveniles mentioned in the report were tested for drugs, Sui’s file says, and “one of those youth tested positive for THC-Marijuana.”
But Colorado Springs Police have no record of arrest for Sui, said spokesman Lt. James Sokolik.
Jacobson said he could not discuss any situation involving a specific employee.
Under division policy, administrators call police if they suspect a crime has been committed, Jacobson said, adding that in cases of alleged contraband, the material or substance must be available as proof.
“No substance, no video, you’re not going to get too far,” he said, in terms of suspected illegal action.
Whether law enforcement is contacted depends on various factors, Jacobson said, including whether victims want to file charges.
Said one employee: “When staff are assaulted, they persuade you not to press charges. They come up with safety plans that are not enforced.”
The intake area at Spring Creek Youth Services Center. Some youths committed to state custody for criminal activity are processed at Spring Creek and then sent to residential facilities in other cities.
Drinking hand sanitizer
Each case of wrongdoing is weighed on an individual basis against a matrix of infractions, Jacobson said
“A kid may do some minor vandalism at a youth center that could possibly rise to the level of a misdemeanor, but maybe we’ve elected to deal with it internally through an incident report and restorative justice,” he said. Such a resolution prevents a juvenile from “being pushed higher in the system.”
After Sui was escorted off the premises of Spring Creek, which is across from the El Paso County jail on East Las Vegas Street, employees say new policies on searching staff for contraband as they arrive for work took effect.
But employees say drugs continue to be trafficked in.
Two kids were flagged for “possession of contraband” and “producing positive urinalysis screenings,” in May, according to documents from employees. In June, staff confiscated two marijuana dab pens, another report shows.
Said Jacobson, “Anytime you have an individual who has tested positive for a use of a substance — that’s been in locked care and not going out — it’s obviously a significant concern and something I refer back to the complexity of our youth.”
Drugs are “an ongoing issue” in both juvenile offender and adult facilities, Jacobson said. “We constantly have to be vigilant and deal with it, and we continue to be doing things to keep contraband out of locked care.”
Sui also “had knowledge” and was “engaged in the youth taking sanitizing wipes and the container in multiple rooms” while he was with them, according to his employment file, which states, “The youth are later seen on the unit with cups of hand sanitizer and are drinking it.”
The next phrase is redacted in the documents from the state, but employees said drinking hand sanitizer caused at least one teen to be taken to a hospital.
Depending on the ingredients, ingesting alcohol-based hand sanitizer can cause various symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ranging from nausea, vomiting and decreased level of consciousness, to breathing problems, seizures and blindness.
Spring Creek Youth Services Center is across the street from the El Paso County jail on East Las Vegas Street.
Lack of documentation
Wanted and unwanted sexual encounters also occur, according to employees. Some females want to get pregnant so “they can have a baby and don’t care by whom,” said one employee who isn’t being named to protect her position.
She also suspects a 14-year-old boy was recently raped by two other male youths in a bathroom.
Written reports call what transpired “inconclusive.”
Video footage shows three youths entering the bathroom, which the employee says has a broken handle and cannot be accessed from the outside without breaking down the door.
The student said he slipped, fell and hit his head.
There were too many injuries and a “significant amount of blood on the floor,” as well as the boy displaying what the employee said amounts to “classic signs” of having been unwillingly sodomized.
“They were in there for 20 minutes with him,” the employee said. “He’s still avoiding his peers, his personal hygiene has slipped … I’m scared for these kids, that they’re being forced to do sexual favors.”
Staff say they are talked out of filing accounts of misbehavior or blamed for kids’ actions.
“I wrote three incident reports the other day, and they never got entered or followed,” Cherry said.
Incident reports are generated when an employee calls for backup. A code yellow means a juvenile isn’t following staff instructions and commits a minor rule violation. A code red constitutes a major violation, indicating physical safety is in danger.
Staff members said 13 incident reports were generated on April 12, three of which were code red.
But the state only provided one incident report from April 12, in response to The Gazette’s request for reports of that day. The documented case involved a youth yelling, cursing, kicking a door, pushing staff and needing to be physically restrained.
The division follows certain criteria and procedures for filing incident reports, Jacobson said.
“There’s always going to be supervisor review for staying within the guardrails,” he said, with an expectation of “not writing youth up outside of the criteria or burying a youth with incident reports that are not serving the youth.”
The emphasis is on being “fair and firm,” Jacobson said, and “holding the youth accountable” so that they learn from their mistakes and see the event as an opportunity for growth instead of punishment.
“Staff are scared to report things,” said one employee, who said she’s had keys, drinks and food stolen and then was asked by administrators, “Why did you have that out?”
A 20-year Department of Human Services employee said, “A lot of incidents are slipping by because the kids become more violent if you write them up. But Spring Creek is not a safe environment.”
Routine errant behavior the employees list include youth disrespecting staff, using foul language, detailing sexual acts, taunting that they will incite a code and talk of murdering employees.
One employee said she filed a sexual harassment claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about a youth who’s over 18 repeatedly telling her he wants to have sex with her, making other lewd comments, calling her names and drawing lewd images.
That complaint, submitted in May, hasn’t yet been acted upon, and .
Turmoil in the numbers
One statistic gives a partial indication of the turmoil employees describe. The number of physical restraints at Spring Creek jumped drastically in the six-month period that covered the time when committed youth moved from Zebulon Pike Youth Services Center to Spring Creek. The period also spans the onset of the COVID pandemic.
Officials said they changed the populations last June because Spring Creek is larger, and they wanted more beds for youths from around southern Colorado to be closer to their families.
Fights and assaults at youth correctional facilities in Colorado Springs.
Staff used restraint techniques 835 times on 104 kids at Spring Creek from March 2020 through August 2020, compared with 483 restraints in the previous six months of September 2019 through February 2020, according to division data. Juveniles were placed in isolation 50 times, staying in seclusion an average of about 40 minutes.
Those numbers indicate staff were dealing with challenges, Logemann said.
The use of physical restraints reverted to more typical numbers in the most recent data released July 1, with staff implementing 419 restraint techniques from September 2020 through February.
Also, seclusions at Spring Creek dropped by 72% in that six-month period to 14 incidents, with an average time kids’ spent in isolation just over half an hour. Colorado’s overall youth corrections system is performing better than national averages for seclusion, Jacobson said.
The division’s annual recidivism report, also released last Thursday, shows what Jacobson called a notable decrease of 10.5% in repeat offenders one year after release, for a systemwide rate of 30.6%.
The state’s three-year recidivism rate is 62.9%, a 0.9% decrease over 2020.
“Moving to a therapeutic model, holding youth accountable so they can learn from their mistakes and establishing relationships are keys to addressing behavior,” Jacobson said.
Police called to riot
Spring Creek employees who spoke to The Gazette say the numbers don’t represent the current environment because of the lack of documentation.
The Child Protection Ombudsman of Colorado has received only one complaint regarding Spring Creek since 2017, and none in the past year, said Amanda Pennington, director of client services.
Cherry sought out the union for state workers, Colorado WINS, for assistance with filing a complaint about Spring Creek, including what employees say is a staff shortage that’s led to mandatory overtime to fill shifts. Twenty-seven teachers have quit in the last two years, Cherry said, and some staff now are working 12 hours or more a day.
State officials dispute those numbers.
“Decades of understaffing and underfunding have made dangerous situations like the one at Spring Creek Youth Services Center all too common for state employees across departments throughout the state,” Hilary Glasgow, executive director of Colorado WINS (Workers for Innovative and New Solutions), said in an email.
“That leads to a dangerous work environment in which situations that staff normally should be able to manage can escalate and have even led to state employees being assaulted,” she said.
Over the past two years, fights and assaults reached a high of 25 in April 2020, but this spring dropped to four to five per month, according to division data. Colorado Springs Police were called to Spring Creek this past March after a riot and arrested five youths, two age 17 or under and three over age 18.
Last week, a Spring Creek security guard had his jaw broken, an employee said. The guard entered the gym to find out why kids had turned the lights off, and when juveniles turned the lights back on, they attacked him, she said. One youth was choking the guard, with his hands around his neck, which the employee said was not reflected in incident reports.
Spring Creek was the subject of a 2014-2015 Gazette investigation that uncovered statewide instances of staff being assaulted by teens and allegations of child abuse and neglect resulting from restraint and isolation practices.
That led to an upheaval in leadership and changes in state law to reduce punitive measures and introduce techniques that emphasize therapeutic and relational behavior modification.
During the pandemic, Spring Creek created an outdoor sitting area where youths can participate in treatment groups.
Jacobson has headed the state’s youth division since 2016, when the system overhaul began.
“With old-school corrections, we set up a system where we had total external control but when they (juveniles) walk out the door, they haven’t been taught to deal with issues, so they’re not going to take anything with them,” he said.
Current and former employees blame what they see as a softer approach for staff not being able to gain control when youths lash out.
“Kids understand when staff are weak, it’s the predatory mentality, and when they can take over, they’ll do it,” said Mark Schaefer, who taught detainees and committed youths for 19 years at Zeb Pike.
“People would say these kids are at-risk — they are not at-risk, they are the risk,” he said.
Jacobson again refers to the numbers, which he says tell him reforms have been beneficial.
For example, he said, Prairie Vista Youth Services Center in Brighton recently became certified as a trauma-responsive facility, meaning staff employ specific techniques that are sensitive to kids’ previous experiences.
The center has had “extremely low numbers of fights,” Jacobson said, and has not used seclusion or physical management at all in the past six months.
Colorado Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs who led legislation to “develop a more humane-based and relationship-based environment in DYS,” also said the statistics point to success. Instead of kids being kept in solitary confinement for days or weeks, they’re released as soon as they calm down.
“They were using some pretty brutal techniques, including a full-body restraint,” he said. “The changes have reduced the amount of youth violence, which was one of the goals.”
Division-wide, fights and assaults have declined in the past two years from a high of 133 in March 2020, when the pandemic started, to a systemwide low of 54 in February, data show.
‘Smaller is better’
More improvements are coming, Jacobson said.
The number of youths sent to corrections in Colorado has decreased every year since 2010. Because of that, new legislation reduces beds for juvenile offenders from 327 to 215. Bed capacity at Spring Creek has been cut from 60 offenders to 45 for this fiscal year.
Instead of 20 youths living on one “pod,” or wing, at Spring Creek, occupancy will fall to nine, Jacobson said.
“The changes are good,” he said. “We’ll have less youth per center and pod, which will help us maintain our ratios (of staff to youth).”
Spring Creek staff members who spoke to The Gazette are skeptical, saying 60 youths were living at the center last Thursday.
The high number is due to the state revoking a contract with Rite of Passage, a contractor that operated Ridge View Youth Services Center in Watkins, employees say. The facility catered to juveniles preparing to exit the corrections system and teens in foster care.
“It’s where we’d send kids to reduce our numbers,” Cherry said. “We’ve seen an influx of kids in the last few months because of that contract cancellation.”
State officials dispute that, saying that hasn’t been the case.
Also new, a legislatively mandated group will form to set a uniform formula for determining which youths will be committed to state custody.
Members will look for alternatives that allow youth to continue living with parents or relatives or in foster care, while receiving treatment from less restrictive community-based programs.
“We’ve learned smaller is better,” Jacobson said, “and we’re moving our system toward that.”
The reforms of 2016-2017 were “just a start to move away from a punitive juvenile correctional environment,” said the ACLU’s Logemann.
“More work is still needed,” she said.
This article has been clarified from its original version to add whether certain incident reports the Gazette requested and did not receive have been filed with the Colorado Department of Human Services are unknown because only certain types of reports can be released, under state law.
Also, employee reports of turnover and reduction in numbers of filled beds at Spring Creek differ from what state officials have recorded.
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.
This content was originally published here.