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Colorado’s most-troubled youth lock-up facility, the site of a riot and multiple escapes, needs a drug dog, staff training

State officials released a heavily redacted report Friday detailing a consultant’s visit to Lookout Mountain back in July

Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a juvenile corrections facility for boys in Golden, is surrounded by a 16-foot fence with anti-climbing mesh. It is operated by the Colorado Department of Human Services. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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A consultant hired to figure out what’s gone wrong at Colorado’s most dangerous youth lock-up center recommended the state get a drug-sniffing dog, tighten policies for strip searches, raise staff morale and regularly review surveillance video.

Those were among 55 recommendations in a heavily redacted report the state Department of Human Services released Friday — five weeks after agreeing to release it following media complaints that the 25-page document was being kept secret. 

Nine of the 55 recommendations and 10 of the state’s responses were blacked out before the document was released. The report is the result of a consultant’s four-day visit to Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in July. 

A group from the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators toured the Golden facility for boys at the request of the state human services department after a troubling spring. Several teens and staff were injured in a riot, four youths — including two “violent sex offenders with gang affiliations” — escaped, and an employee was arrested for sexual exploitation of a child. 

The consulting group found rampant illegal drug use at the center, that staff morale was low and that the center looked more like an adult prison. The human services department — which includes the Division of Youth Services — implemented many of the consultant’s recommendations ahead of the public release of the report. 

The report released Friday by the Colorado Department of Human Services was redacted. Click the image above to read it.

Department officials announced in January that they would transform the massive complex into four separate youth centers, where kids would attend school, eat meals and attend therapy sessions among the same small groups. Living areas are becoming more home-like, with comfortable furniture, photographs and brighter paint on the walls. The department asked for about $2 million from state lawmakers for the changes.

MORE: A youth corrections center plagued by escapes, drugs and a riot is headed for a physical — and cultural — reorganization

Recommendations that were blacked out by state officials included one titled “administrative oversight” and several related to safety and security. Here are some of the recommendations and state responses that were not redacted: 

  • Reduce the number of youth at the center to 75-96 from 148. The state already has dropped the number of youth at Lookout to 65. In the future, each of the four youth centers on campus — opening in April, July and September — will have 16 to 36 boys. 
  • Work with law enforcement to bring a drug dog to the center on “random visitation days” and during shift changes. Drug contraband at the center “exacerbated the problems” and “undoubtedly contributed to the increase in gang activity, fights, assaults and restraints,” the consultants wrote. The Division of Youth Services secured a contract for a K9 for the center in October, officials said. 
  • Review surveillance video regularly, not just after incidents. Make positive observations to relay to staff, as well as points of correction. State officials said they are working on a new policy to review video and “celebrate positive actions.” 
  • Review the way strip searches are conducted to make sure they ensure privacy and meet security concerns. One staff member should conduct a search, while a second staff member watches (but cannot see the exposed youth). The Division of Youth Services updated its strip search policy in September and sent letters to families notifying them of the change.
  • Develop a weekly “room confinement report” to keep track of how often youths are confined in their rooms and make sure the punishment is used in “limited and exigent circumstances.” State officials said they closely monitor seclusion, on a monthly basis, and are continuing to “develop ways to limit the time a youth is subject to their bedroom outside of sleeping hours.” 
  • Implement the “Diana Screen” tool, which screens new hires for the likelihood of crossing boundaries or sexual victimization. The state declined, saying an internal review of research “determined that it’s not in the best interest” of the division. 
  • Designate a locked “grievance box,” checked by staff daily, in which youths can place grievances. Grievances that allege sexual assault should trigger a “thorough investigation” and a written response to the youth within five days. Staff should be prohibited from asking youth about the grievances. State officials said their current grievance procedure already aligns with federal Department of Justice standards. 
  • Better train the director and staff at the center, particularly regarding behavior management — training that was discontinued by a previous director. The lack of training “resulted in staff and youth losing the foundation of rules and rewards to promote positive growth and ultimately created a very unstable environment,” the report said. State officials said they are currently retraining all staff in behavior management. 

Lookout Mountain, which is for youths up to age 21 who already have been sentenced, is one of 10 state-run youth corrections centers in Colorado. The system has about 500 young people either being held in detention or already sentenced by a judge.

The consultants noted that Lookout has seen an increase in violent offenders and that the center is likely to struggle with providing appropriate treatment services as the sentences increase. “Reform efforts currently underway take time and there may be struggles through the process,” they wrote. 

They also noted the center, now run by an interim director, needs a permanent leader.

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