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This Jail for Hire

Colorado's cheap solution to prison overcrowding has cost inmates plenty. It could cost the state millions.

The Insiders
The Colorado Department of Corrections has spent millions of dollars in recent years to accommodate its new crop of "special needs" inmates--youthful offenders charged as adults but deemed too green to do hard time; elderly prisoners grown fragile in the joint; and the chronically mentally ill, who now have their own prison complete with a free dispensary and on-call psychotherapy.

But while the state has spent heavily to address the needs of those groups, other convicts have received less discriminating treatment. These are the prisoners with no real constituency--the "normal" general-population inmates who have proved the easiest to juggle in the balancing act prompted by overcrowding. Some have even been turned into criminal nomads, sent to do time in other states when stiffer sentences and tougher parole policies left no more room at home.

Colorado has been exporting its prisoners for nine years, longer than any other state. But none of those out-of-state placements have generated as much controversy--or as much potential risk to taxpayers--as those at the Bowie County jail in Texarkana, Texas. In that facility, Colorado inmates were awakened for exercise sessions in the middle of the night and gassed with pepper spray, conditions that last December led to a full-scale prison riot. The DOC's response: It gave inmates an upgrade to the county jail in Karnes City, a lockup financed by American Express and built specifically to woo leased prisoners.

In the fourth segment of Westword's series on the state prison system, Alan Prendergast travels to Karnes County to talk to expatriate prisoners and the enterprising former county sheriff who's made a business of housing them--and to unravel the story of what's really happening to Colorado's jailhouse gypsies.

David Crosby offers his right hand as Exhibit A. Four fingers stretch out flat and motionless, but the thumb does a Texas two-step, twitching and waggling to its own private beat.

"I got that in Bowie County," he says. "I still got tremors in my thumb from the handcuffs being so tight. It's never gone away."

Crosby's dancing thumb is a memento of his fourteen months in Texas county jails. He was one of nearly 500 Colorado state prisoners shipped to the Bowie County Correctional Facility in Texarkana in June 1995 because of overcrowding at home. Crosby arrived at the start of what was supposed to be a two-year, $14 million contract between Colorado and the county to house some of the overflow, but the contract was abruptly canceled last December after prisoners rioted on an upper tier of cells, causing an estimated $40,000 in damage.

Bowie County was no picnic, Crosby says. Like dozens of other Colorado inmates, he tells horror stories of unsanitary conditions and brutal treatment by BCCF guards, of being gassed with pepper spray and locked down without provocation, of rampant violence among unsupervised inmates.

Bowie County officials say the inmates' allegations are greatly exaggerated, but they have triggered a massive class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Colorado Department of Corrections and its Texas contractors. Last summer, after county officials defied a federal court order allowing ACLU lawyers to inspect the site, U.S. District Judge John Kane temporarily halted DOC payments to the jail. When the riot broke out four months later, Colorado officials scrambled to find other beds for their inmates.

The December 11, 1995, riot at Bowie "had been building for a long time," Crosby says. "Everybody kept waiting for Judge Kane and the ACLU to do something. But it kept going on, and the conditions were so deplorable--the bugs, the filth, guys taking a crap ten feet from where you eat, the staff attitude so mean and surly--it wasn't any one thing. I wasn't surprised to see it at all. You can't cage people up and treat them like animals and not expect them to react like animals."

Crosby and 474 other Colorado prisoners have since been transferred to the Karnes County Correctional Center in Karnes City, a south Texas hamlet of 3,000 people. Another 80 inmates have been moved to a jail in San Antonio, sixty miles to the north. The privately run Karnes jail is brand-new, and prisoners grudgingly admit it's not as bad as what they faced at Bowie. But the complaints continue: about nauseating food and cramped living conditions, about mind-numbing idleness, and about the inadequate medical care some believe contributed to the death of a 62-year-old inmate from a heart attack in June--a claim the DOC and jail officials hotly deny.

"This is a lot worse than a county jail," says Garry Izor, who's already served nineteen years in Colorado prisons on a twenty-to-life murder charge. Izor was sent down to Karnes County in February and placed in a 24-man pod smaller than most mobile homes (see sidebar, page 14). "There's an awful lot of time sitting in the pod; there isn't a heck of a lot else to do," he says. "We have no property, and the conditions are substandard."

Given society's hardening attitude toward prisoners, many people would be pleased to see felons like Izor do the hardest time that Texas can dish out. "I've had people call me and ask, 'Why can't all our inmates go to Texas first and then come back to Colorado?'" marvels Ben Griego, DOC's director of offender services. "As if Colorado's soft on inmates."

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