DENVER — BURR-HEADED and beaded with sweat, the 15 youths march in from an outdoor courtyard, where they have been running in formation. Now they are preparing to scale three flights of stairs, crab-walk across a prison compound, and crawl on their bellies.
First, though, a drill instructor wants to know, in a voice as hard as an ingot, how they like the workout.
``We love it here! We like it here! We have finally found our home,'' comes the rhythmic response.
Welcome to the nation's latest experiment in prison reform. The method may not be Dale Carnegie-style, but officials in Colorado are hoping it will win friends and influence young criminals. It is part punishment, part group therapy, part rehabilitation. Officials here have taken ideas from around the country and fashioned them into a program that they hope will curb one of the nation's most stubborn social problems: youth violence.
The effort is aimed at youths between the ages of 14 and 18 - a period when the right approach could mean the difference between a productive place in society or a life behind bars.
Success in this area has been dismal so far. Though most violent-crime rates are declining, that for juveniles continues to grow nationwide. A favorite remedy of the 1990s - boot camps - hasn't proven very effective. While the military-style detention centers often cost less than traditional lockups, studies show that not many have reduced the number of repeat offenders.
Experts generally agree, though, that the most successful ones offer vocational training and treatment along with the drill-sergeant tactics. Thus, in fashioning their program, Colorado officials have tried to find that right blend of boot-camp discipline and reformative counseling, education, and job-training.
Other states will be watching to see if Colorado has come up with an effective remedy. ``If it works, no matter how expensive, there will be a savings to society in terms of later costs of imprisonment and the suffering and economic losses of victims that are avoided,'' says David Kopel, a researcher with the Independence Institute, a Colorado think tank.
Born of a summer of youth violence, the program was cobbled together by lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, and others during a special session of the Colorado Legislature last fall after a series of random, gang-related shootings at Denver's Rocky Mountain High.
A $27-million, 300-bed facility is being built in Pueblo to house the project, called the Youth Offender System. It is scheduled to open by 1996. For now, the program is being run from behind the brick walls and concertina wire of a maximum-security facility in Denver.
Only about two-dozen youths have been sentenced to the four-month-old program so far. The target group is teenagers who have committed felonies - such as armed robbery or car theft, but not murder or rape. The youths serve from one to five years, with no early release.
``This is a pioneering model,'' says Richard Swanson, a state Department of Corrections official who is chief architect of the program. ``It combines a high-discipline approach that holds each person accountable with programs addressing individual needs.''
In the first 30 days, the inmates go through the mini-boot camp, in which they do situps, swab floors, and otherwise work and drill from dawn to dusk. The idea is to break down their rebellious gang and street mentalities and begin to instill order and discipline. The inmates wear canary-yellow coveralls and are not allowed to talk to each other. When they address officers, they have to say ``sir.'' Corrections officers also act as mentors to the youths.
In the next phase, lasting eight months to four years, the inmates spend most of the days studying. They tap away at computers, and there are group discussions on violence-prevention and vocational programs. The focus is on fostering a work ethic and seeing that the inmates earn the equivalent of a high school diploma.
Then comes the transition to post-detention life. For a few months, the inmates live in halfway houses and begin applying for jobs. This is followed by an ``after-care'' period at home or in another setting if the family isn't deemed supportive.
Designers consider this phase crucial. Too often, they say, inmates are dumped back on the street with no support or supervision. Thus, during this period the inmates still have to attend group meetings and work or go to school.
No certainty of success
Even with all the push-ups and psychology, there is no guarantee the system will work. It is costly and complex. Dr. Swanson says if 1 out of 2 of the youths end up staying out of prison, it will be a success. The recidivism rates will be closely watched. When the program was devised, conservatives chafed at all the emphasis on rehabilitation. Liberals worried about the punitive aspects of the mini-boot camp.
David Ramirez calls the program a ``mish-mash.'' The juvenile court judge in Denver says there will be 14-year-old first-time offenders in with hardened 18-year-olds. Most will be black or Hispanic. The program, he says, is too generic to deal with the diversity. Still, in an era when America is threatened with losing a generation of youths, any progress will be welcome.
``We aren't going to save everybody,'' says Regis Groff, a former state senator who directs the program. ``But I think we will help a lot of kids, and I know we will help far more than if we put them through the adult system.''