This Jail for Hire

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

The Katsampes report has been strongly contested by DOC and Bowie County officials; at a court hearing last spring, a representative of Bowie County claimed that the jail had encountered few problems since it got rid of the cantankerous Colorado inmates and received a shipment of fresh bodies from Arkansas.

Several of the charges in Katsampes's report, such as gripes about not receiving enough toilet paper, may seem petty. But to prisoners stacked like cordwood in stifling, 900-square-foot pods--enough space, by national standards, to house thirteen inmates, but under Texas law suitable for nearly twice that number--minor annoyances can become major eruptions. It was just such a trivial dispute--the Bowie guards' efforts to remove towels and sheets hung out to dry around bunks in the middle of the night--that triggered the December 11 riot. Crosby, who was nowhere near the riot, says he was gassed, handcuffed and beaten on the floor of his cell by Texas state corrections officers who moved in to quell the disturbance.

"That kind of thing went on all the time," Crosby says. "DOC knew all about it. And they just didn't care."

By contrast, warden Ellis boasts that he hasn't had to break out the pepper spray once since the Colorado inmates arrived in Karnes County. In May a handful of prisoners were involved in a fight in the recreation yard, which inmates refer to as "our mini-riot." But Ellis characterizes it as a brief fracas among rival black and Hispanic prisoners, scarcely worth mentioning.

"It was a temper tantrum more than anything else," he says. "They got mad and threw some stuff around. It wasn't directed at my officers, by any means."

Yet many of the complaints prisoners raised at Bowie are echoed at Karnes: not enough jobs or programs, too much idleness, predators and weaker inmates all lumped together within the same pod. Ellis says more than three-fourths of the inmates work, and some take GED, anger-management or drug-abuse classes as well. Prisoners say that many of the jobs consist of tutoring other prisoners for three hours or less a day and that the jail is short on textbooks and accredited teachers for the GED program. Much of their time, they say, is either spent sardined in the pods or in the blazing heat of the bare-bones recreation yard, which has been free of free weights since the mini-riot.

Ellis says the complainers simply aren't taking advantage of what the jail has to offer. Some job opportunities involve working outside the walls on city maintenance crews, he says, a program he expects to expand as the jail receives more minimum-security inmates. "This is not a 23-hour-lockdown place," he says. "If someone's spending a lot of time in their pod, that's their choice. A lot of these guys are not outdoor people."

They're not keen on the indoors, either. Garry Izor says the air-conditioning in his pod was on the fritz for several weeks, raising temperatures and tempers. "Imagine swimming through air," Izor says. "You just sit around and sweat." (Ellis has logs of climate readings taken by guards that indicate the temperature in Izor's pod never exceeded 81 degrees.)

Inmates also fret that the lack of rehab programs may lengthen the time they have to serve. Mike Durham was shipped off to Texas the day after he arrived at Canon City on an arson charge. He'd volunteered for every program DOC offered him, including a sex-offender treatment program officials wanted him to take because of a previous conviction, but it didn't matter. Now he's having only seven days of "earned time" taken off his sentence every month instead of the customary ten--a situation that will add months to his time in the system.

"They're telling me I have to take their sex-offender program before I get my three days, but it's not offered here," he says. "It's definitely affecting my deal, even though I'm doing everything I'm supposed to be doing."

Other grievances center on food and--yes--toilet paper. The food complaints resemble the punchline of an old Woody Allen joke: "It's terrible--and such small portions, too." Colorado's contract requires that its prisoners be fed a minimum of 3,300 calories a day, but prisoners say the jail is meeting that provision with a diet rich in salt, starch and fat.

"Turkey all the time," reports Crosby. "Turkey hot dogs. Sliced turkey. Ground turkey. Turkey ham. Turkey sausage. And lots of grits. They turkey us to death and skimp on everything. Maybe once a week you get an orange. We've had apples twice, bananas maybe three or four times in the seven months we've been here."

Ellis considers Crosby's gripe, and others like it, to be the minority opinion. "Seventy-five, 80 percent of the inmates love the food," he insists. "They'll always tell you they'd like more. But when they leave, the clothes they came in with are always a bit tight. I eat here, right off the line--but not three meals a day, because I'd just swell up."

The warden points out that a dietitian from the DOC has visited the jail twice and that "a case manager from Colorado is here all the time." But that hasn't stopped inmates from groaning over gastrointestinal problems and the jail's policy of issuing one roll of toilet paper a week to each inmate. Ellis says his staff used to give out two or three rolls at a time but cut back for security reasons.

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