<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

VIII. A Child’s Life in Colorado’s Adult Prisons

“Doing time” is hard for any prisoner. Prisons are tense, cheerless, and often degrading places in which all inmates struggle to maintain their equilibrium despite violence, exploitation, and lack of privacy; stringent limitations on family and community contacts; and a paucity of opportunities for meaningful education, work, or other productive activities. But “doing time” is particularly difficult for individuals who come to prison as adolescents or even very young adults. Teenagers lack many of the physical and mental coping mechanisms that adult prisoners use to maintain their self-respect and their mental health. Not only are teens ill-equipped to handle prison, it is also an unlikely place for them to gain the life experiences and education necessary for healthy mental and physical development. The youth offenders highlighted in this report face an additional and daunting challenge—they must come to terms with the fact that they must live in prison for the rest of their lives.

Confinement of Children with Adults

Human rights law and correctional standards call for separating incarcerated children from adults; Human Rights Watch interviewed some offenders in Colorado, however, who said they were housed in close proximity to adults, most often in county jails, but also in prison, while they were still below the age of eighteen.89 This practice violates non-binding standards of the American Correctional Association (ACA) supporting placement of youth offenders, including youths who are transferred or sentenced to adult prison, in separate juvenile facilities.90 The ACA also recommends keeping children in pre-trial detention out of sight and sound of adults, in accordance with federal “sight and sound” requirements.91 Human rights set a much higher and very simple standard:  all incarcerated children must be separated from adults until they turn eighteen.92

Access to Education and Programming

Children sent to adult prisons find their academic and vocational education truncated. Juvenile detention facilities are supposed to provide education to all inmates below the age of eighteen. The child offenders interviewed or corresponded with for this report entered prison while they were still young, though some had recently passed their eighteenth or nineteenth birthdays. Of the thirty-eight offenders for whom we have ages at entrance to prison, the youngest age of entry was sixteen-years-old and the oldest was nineteen. Regardless of whether they entered prison at sixteen or nineteen, these youth offenders were incarcerated during the years when education and skill development are crucial.

Colorado’s Administrative Regulations state that “every offender in a correctional facility who lacks basic communication and functional literacy skills shall be required to attend academic programs unless such person . . . is serving a life sentence, life without parole, or is under sentence of death.”93 This means that inmates, including those who are child offenders, serving a sentence of life without parole who do not insist on being able to take the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) will not be required to do so.

Once a youth offender has obtained his GED or if he has already from graduated high school, he faces an uphill battle to obtain additional educational opportunities in prison. The DOC’s educational policy states that its goals are to “ensure that every inmate who leaves the Colorado penal system . . . has the vocational skills needed to obtain employment upon release.”94 By definition no child offender sentenced to life without parole in Colorado will ever “leave the Colorado penal system”—unless they are one of the very few to obtain clemency in the state.95  As a result, they are not able to access the same variety of classes as individuals who will be released from prison at some point in the future. George L. explained to a Human Rights Watch researcher that his prison did not “offer me anything else [other than the GED] because of the length of my time.”96  Many other child offenders made similar claims.

International standards require basic primary and secondary education and even vocational or college-level opportunities for children in prison.97 Even those child offenders who enter prison after reaching age eighteen are entitled to further education. According to the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners:

Provision shall be made for the further education of all prisoners capable of profiting thereby, including religious instruction in the countries where this is possible. The education of illiterates and young prisoners shall be compulsory and special attention shall be paid to it by the administration. . . . [and] [r]ecreational and cultural activities shall be provided in all institutions for the benefit of the mental and physical health of prisoners.98


Not one of the offenders interviewed for this report has avoided violence in prison. Sometimes they blame the staff. George L. was interviewed by Human Rights Watch when he was twenty-one-years old. He said that “a few times” he was “slammed pretty hard by the guards here.”99 Another young man who entered prison at age nineteen said “I was having problems from other inmates that were violent to me and the staff wouldn’t move me, they left me there on purpose to be abused by the other inmates.”100 In addition, all of the child offenders described getting into fights with other inmates in order to defend themselves. Gregory C., who entered prison at age sixteen, was typical. He said, “I’ve been in fights with prisoners on many occasions. Luckily, I received nothing more than a few black eyes, fat lips, chipped tooth, and swollen knuckles.”101

While no one interviewed by Human Rights Watch admitted that he had been raped, almost everyone described having been approached by inmates for sexual favors, or having to fight to protect themselves from rape. Nathan Y., who entered prison at age eighteen, wrote,

When I first went to jail / prison, when I was young, it was disorienting and scary, like a fish thrown in water not knowing how to swim. Everyone seemed big and dangerous and threatening, I was challenged and intimidated a lot. Canines [sexual predators] stalked me, and at all times I expected to be attacked.102

Luke J., who entered prison at age seventeen said, “When I first came into prison [a] dude told me that he was gonna make me his “bitch” and he beat me up real bad.”103 Anthony C. told a Human Rights Watch researcher, “I’ve had a few experiences when I first came to prison as a youngster [Anthony was sixteen]. I had to deal with gays trying to turn me out, people looking to beat me (trick or jive) because I was young, and although I never caught anything I was aware of the diseases going around.”104


The difficulties of adjusting to prison life and defending oneself often lead to disciplinary infractions and punishment. All prisoners who engage in violence or are disruptive may be confined for prolonged periods of time in Colorado’s supermaximum security prison, Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP). Life at CSP, especially for newcomers, is one of isolation twenty-three or more hours a day in a cell. Of the twenty-four child offenders interviewed or corresponded with for this report, just over 50 percent, or thirteen inmates, spent between six months and four years in CSP. All were over the age of eighteen when they entered CSP. They reported the devastating loneliness of spending their days alone, without any human contact except for when a guard passes them a food tray through a slot in the door, or when guards touch their wrists when handcuffing them through the same slot before taking them to the exercise room or for a shower once a week.


Dennis Burbank, an Administrative Officer at CSP who headed up the original team of correctional officers who designed the prison, offered an explanation for why child offenders serving life without parole sentences would end up confined in a supermaximum security prison:

One [factor] is age—when you come in at a young age with life without, there’s not a whole lot of light at the end of the tunnel. Also, it’s kind of a guy thing, the young ones come in with a lot of fear, anxiety, paranoia, and they want to make a name for themselves—so they have a tendency to act out. And if they are part of a gang they are almost required to act out . . . any of the young guys, they see it as a feather in their cap to work themselves to CSP . . . and they don’t think about the repercussions. . . . They say [to themselves] “I’ve got to impress everyone with what a bad-ass I am.”105

Membership in a security threat group (or prison gang) is also a cause for transfer to isolation.106 Christopher W. explained to Human Rights Watch:

You got me in a place where I’m surrounded by nothing but gangs, so the only way not to be a victim of one of those gangs is to join them. But when you become a member you’re a part of a security threat group, so now they say “we’re gonna keep you in a room alone for the rest of your life.”107

Since the late 1990s, Human Rights Watch has documented the serious human rights violations suffered by prisoners in supermaximum security prisons in the United States and advocated reform of the policies responsible for such abuse.108 Prolonged periods of isolation can be devastating for anyone, especially young offenders.109 None of the offenders contacted for this report were subjected to such isolation while they were still children; however long periods in isolation raise human rights concerns for all prisoners, irrespective of age. For this reason, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the expert prison-monitoring body associated with the Council of Europe) has instructed governments:

The principle of proportionality calls for a balance to be struck between the requirement of the situation and the imposition of a solitary-confinement-type regime, which can have very harmful consequences for the person concerned. Solitary confinement can in certain circumstances amount to inhuman and degrading treatment; in any event, all forms of solitary confinement should last for as short a time as possible.110

Coping with the Life without Parole Sentence

Child offenders have a difficult time understanding the true significance of their crimes. But it is even harder for them to fathom what a life without parole sentence actually means. Andrew M., who was fifteen at the time of his offense said “at first I didn’t think they were serious” about his life without parole sentence. “But,” he said,  

as time went on, I realized they were serious, but then again it never kicked in, but as time keeps going by, I’m starting to realize how serious they are and it’s starting to effect my thinking. I mean, I just turned twenty.111

Even when they do understand, young people often hang on to a hope that someday they will be free. Christopher W. described hope as the only thing preventing him from committing suicide:

The only reason I don’t kill myself is cuz there’s still hope. I mean at least if you got a dog that you know is never going to get adopted, that’s never going to live free again, I mean they kill it. They put it to sleep. That’s more humane than keeping him in this cage the next twenty years, making him live with his own shit and his own piss. I came in here at seventeen years old and what are they going to do, keep me for sixty or seventy years?  I mean c’mon now . . . that’s a long time!112


Another young man spoke about his inability to cope with his current situation, and his suicidal thoughts:

I started doing drugs [when I came to prison]. I mean I always smoked weed, but then I started doing like heroin and stuff. Sometimes I try to escape. I went to mental health one time and they put me on a pain killer. I told them I was starting to have suicidal thoughts . . . and they said that was normal and just go back to my cell. I cut up my wrist. Well, I thought that drugs helped me to escape. But then reality is still here when I wake up.113 

Being in prison for such a long time can be devastating for any prisoner’s relationships, regardless of age. But losing social interactions with friends and family can be particularly harmful to children. Several child offenders felt unnecessarily cut off from society because of a Colorado Department of Correction visiting policy that “a person may only be approved to visit an offender if there was an established relationship prior to the offender’s incarceration.”114 Offenders must provide documentary proof of such a relationship.

Christopher W., who was twenty-five when Human Rights Watch interviewed him, had lived in several group homes for years before coming to prison. He explained that the last documentary proof he had to show he had a relationship with someone other than his family members was a grade school yearbook. He said, “so that means the only people that I can show them I knew when I was twelve, from some photo when I was in school, those are the only people that I can know for the rest of my life?”115

[89] For example, Roosevelt H., who told Human Rights Watch that he was housed with adults upon entering Colorado’s prison system at age sixteen, said, “when they sent me to DRDC [Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, the point of entry into the prison system] . . .  I was scared and angry to be in there with adults from what I heard about prisons killing, rapes, etc.,” Letter to Human Rights Watch from Roosevelt H., Pueblo, Colorado, February 26, 2004.

[90] American Correctional Association, “Public Correctional Policy on Youthful Offenders Transferred to Adult Criminal Jurisdiction,” Delegate Assembly, Congress of Correction, Nashville, Tennessee, August 21, 1996 (unanimously ratified).

[91] See Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), 1974. While the ACA references the JJDPA’s requirements in its standards, the JJDPA does not apply to youth in adult facilities who are being prosecuted as adults in state court.

[92] See, e.g. Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37b (stating “every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so.”). Two additional international agreements require separation of children from adults in distinct institutions or in separate parts of a single institution. See Article 13.4 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, G.A. Res. 40/33, Annex, 40 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No 53) at 207, U.N. Doc. A/40/53 (1985); and Article 26 of the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, G.A. Res. 45/113, Annex, 45 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49A) at 205, U.N. Doc. A/45/49 (1990).

[93] Colorado Administrative Regulations Number 500-01.

[94] See Colorado Department of Corrections, Educational Policy, available online at:, accessed on February 1, 2005 (emphasis added).

[95] On average, Colorado governor Roy Romer had pardoned 4.5 individuals each year and commuted the sentences of 1.75. Governor Bill Owens, elected in 1999 offered two pardons and one commutation in his first year in office. See “Governors Hold Solemn Power, Face Public's Wrath In Deciding Pardons,” Rocky Mountain News, February 25, 2001.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview with George L., Limon Correctional Facility, Limon, Colorado, May 28, 2004.

[97] U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, G.A. Res. 45/113, annex, 45 U.N. GAPR Supp. (No. 49A) at 205, U.N. Doc. A/45/49, para. 12 (1990) (stating “children should be guaranteed the benefit of meaningful activities and programs which would serve to promote and sustain their health and self-respect, to foster their sense of responsibility and encourage those attitudes and skills that will assist them in developing their potential as members of society.”).

[98] See U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Adopted August 30, 1955, by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, U.N. Doc. A/CONF/611, annex I, E.S.C. res. 663C, 24 U.N. ESCOR Supp. (No. 1) at 11, U.N. Doc. E/3048 (1957), amended E.S.C. res. 2076, 62 U.N. ESCOR Supp. (No. 1) at 35, U.N. Doc. E/5988 (1977), Articles 77(1) and 78.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview with George L., Limon Correctional Facility, Limon, Colorado, May 28, 2004

[100] Letter from Samuel M. to Human Rights Watch, March 8, 2004.

[101] Letter from Gregory C. to Human Rights Watch, Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, March 10, 2004 (pseudonym).

[102] Letter from Nathan Y. to Human Rights Watch, Sterling Correctional Facility, Sterling, Colorado, March 16, 2004.

[103] Human Rights Watch interview with Luke J., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 27, 2004 (pseudonym).

[104] Letter to Human Rights Watch from Anthony C., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, March 4, 2004 (pseudonym).

[105] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dennis Burbank, Administrative Officer III, Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, December 1, 2004.

[106] See Colorado Department of Corrections, Administrative Regulation 600-02 (stating at ¶ IV(A)(4) that membership in a “security threat group” is one of five factors that “may be considered in initiating placement in administrative segregation”).

[107] Human Rights Watch interview with Christopher W., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 28, 2004.

[108] See, e.g. “Out of Sight: Supermaximum Security Confinement in the United States,” A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 12, No. 1(G), February 2000; “Red Onion State Prison: Supermaximum Security Confinement in Virginia,” A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 11, No. 1(g), May 1999; Cold Storage: Supermaximum Security Confinement in Indiana (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997).

[109] For adults, U.S. courts have questioned arbitrary placement into isolation, the length of isolation time imposed, and conditions in the isolation cell. See U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, “Juveniles in Adult Prisons and Jails,” p. 25, October 2000 (citing Harris v. Maloughney, 827 F. Supp. 1488 (D. Mont. 1993); McCray v. Burrell, 516 F.2d 357 (4th Cir. 1975); Lareau v. MacDougal, 473 F.2d 974 (2d Cir. 1972)).

[110] European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), "Report to the Icelandic Government on the visit to Iceland carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment from 6 to 12 July 1993,” Strasbourg, France, CPT/Inf (94) 8, p. 26, June 28, 1994.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrew M., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 26, 2004.

[112] Human Rights Watch interview with Christopher W., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 28, 2004.

[113] Human Rights Watch interview with Luke J., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 27, 2004 (pseudonym). During this interview Luke showed multiple scars across his right arm to a Human Rights Watch researcher.

[114] Colorado Department of Corrections, Offender Visiting Program, available online at:, accessed on February 1, 2005.

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with Christopher W., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 28, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>February 2005