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. 

From the Bound and Broken report: Multiple young people reported that staff would purposely rub their faces on carpet to cause rug burn injuries. One youth stated, “The staff members intentionally rug burn youth.” Another reported that staff pushed her head into the ground and “slid my head on the carpet and I started screaming. I had a big circle on my cheek from that.” 

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.

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