America's Toughest Prisons: Kids behind Bars

Monday 2nd November 10.00pm

The documentary series that unlocks the doors of the United States’ most notorious prisons continues. This instalment examines a radical new approach to dealing with juvenile crime in Pueblo, Colorado. The Youthful Offender System, or YOS, is a special institution designed to rehabilitate young felons who would otherwise be sent to adult prisons. Through a stringent programme of military exercises, hard work and schooling, YOS offers the youngsters a final chance at life on the outside.

Despite an average age of just 16, the 170 inmates at Colorado’s Youthful Offender System have committed crimes so serious they were processed as adults. While most US states would send such offenders to adult prisons, Colorado has opted to give them one final chance to save themselves from a life of crime. However, YOS is far from an easy ride.

Among the new intake this week is 18-year-old Martin. Like 70 per cent of his fellow prisoners, Martin is affiliated with a gang, and has been in and out of correctional facilities since childhood. Despite his familiarity with the system, however, nothing prepares Martin for Zero Day, when inmates are introduced to their new regime. For the first four weeks, YOS prisoners are put through boot camp – an intense programme of military drills. No sooner have they arrived than the youngsters are dressed in orange jumpsuits and made to exercise in the yard, all the while with officers shouting in their faces. “You’re powerless,” says Martin after his first session. “No matter how bad you are, how strong you are, no matter who you are on the street – in here you’re nothing.”

The boot camp residents are awoken at 5am every day and subjected to 14 hours of commands. There is a correct procedure for everything, including walking, talking, eating and making beds. The idea of the regime is to break the youngsters down as individuals and rebuild them as a team, teaching them how to be responsible for themselves as well as others. “We’re like all one person,” says new inmate Cameron. “If one of us screws up, we all pay for it.” In the first week, the team is punished with harsh physical exercise routines on a number of occasions. Realising that this may be his last chance to avoid a lengthy sentence in adult jail, Martin has decided to obey the rules, whatever is thrown at him. “I choose to do everything I have to to get out of here,” he says.

If the prisoners complete their retraining at boot camp, they will serve the rest of their sentence in a different part of the prison. In the Main Campus, 170 young felons eat, live and work together. They sleep in unlocked units, work for their keep, attend school and are given training for life outside prison. “I think the main thing YOS is trying to accomplish is to get the residents educated,” says drill instructor Sergeant Valencia. “Get them a high school diploma and show them that there is something out there.”

Having spent four years at YOS, former gang leader Michael is now considered a model prisoner. “My turning point was my family,” he says, recalling the moment he turned his back on his former life. “You live and learn. I’ve learned the importance of life and how to cherish it.” In his time in prison, Michael has gained his high school diploma and achieved half his college credits. He has also undergone extensive counselling and anger-management classes. In a few weeks, he will begin a programme of community service, after which he will be granted parole and helped to find a job on the outside. If Michael is successful, Colorado will give him a clean record. “It’s worth it if even one kid is successful,” says Sgt Valencia. “You really want them to succeed.”

While still a long way from release, Cameron, Martin and their fellow new starters have all passed boot camp. However, once they move into Main Campus, gang affiliations from the outside will come back into play, and there will be no instructors to protect them. Not every young prisoner completes the programme, with one in every four being sent to adult jail. But of the remainder, 70 per cent stay away from crime for good.

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