Violence at Spring Creek: It’s not the kids, it’s the culture
(This column was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette on 9/28/16)
In a recent Gazette article, it was reported that Spring Creek Correctional Facility is again erupting with assaults and riots, leaving youths and staff frightfully unsafe. After more than two years of hearing these kinds of reports from Spring Creek, it has become increasingly clear that the facility is plagued by an unforgiving and punitive culture that breeds violence and chaos. Staff now attribute the source of the violence to restrictions on their use of solitary confinement and other punitive measures. That should send off alarm bells. When staff charged with rehabilitating at-risk youths lament that they can’t do their job unless they can lock children in torturous and widely discredited solitary confinement, we know there is a serious culture problem at the facility.
Psychological and rehabilitative experts from around the country are unanimous in their finding that solitary confinement hurts children and is wholly counterproductive to rehabilitation. What’s more, it has been proved that evidence-based, nationally accepted best practices – which rely on building one-on-one relationships rather than isolation and restraint – work to reduce recidivism while keeping children and staff safe from violence.
Look to Missouri, which has adopted an approach to youth corrections that is founded on the idea that children are a work in progress and that all youths are redeemable and changeable. After shutting down its large and notoriously violent juvenile detention facility in Boonville in 1983, Missouri began to build small group homes and adopted a rehabilitative model where staff are strongly discouraged from using seclusion and restraint to manage even violent youths. Youths are instead immersed in an intensive, therapeutic treatment program led by development specialists rather than correctional guards and are provided a wide range of vocational and academic opportunities. Facility staff keep children safe primarily through relationship building and compassionate de-escalation, rather than through solitary confinement and restraint. The results are astounding. Compared with youth correctional staff in other states, Missouri staff are 14 times less likely to be assaulted. Compared with their peers in other states, Missouri in-custody youths are 4.5 times less likely to be assaulted, 17 times less likely to be placed in mechanical restraints and 228 times less likely to be placed in isolation. Recidivism rates are some of the lowest in the country, and high school graduation rates are on par with Missouri children who are out of custody.
These results show unequivocally that when children are treated with compassion, while given individualized attention and opportunities for meaningful growth, detention facilities become safer. Pleas from the Spring Creek staff to return to punitive measures, like increased solitary confinement and more restraints, demonstrate with clarity that the facility is on the wrong path. And it is no wonder. While leadership within the Division of Youth Corrections has long said it is committed to implementing nationally accepted best practices and curbing solitary confinement and restraint, it has seen four directors in the past two years – the most recent of whom departed in the wake of the latest Spring Creek scandal. Spring Creek has also seen at least three different facility directors during that same time period. Without consistent, committed leadership at the top, we cannot expect to see meaningful cultural change among line staff.
Finally, although you would not know it from staff accounts, the source of limitations on Spring Creek staff’s ability to use solitary confinement is state law that has been in place since 1999. That law prohibits solitary confinement of youths except during an ongoing emergency. In 2014, our child advocacy coalition discovered that staff were placing children in isolation for days, weeks and even months at a time to punish them, in direct violation of the law. This was occurring at precisely the same time Spring Creek staff were complaining of rampant violence in the facility. Clearly, then, it is not the use or nonuse of solitary confinement that is driving the violence.
After more than two years of complaints and assaults, we must acknowledge the true root cause – a persistent punitive culture that must change.
Rebecca T. Wallace is ACLU of Colorado staff attorney and policy counsel, and Elizabeth Logemann is Colorado Juvenile Defender Center (CJDC) supervising attorney.