This Jail for Hire

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

"Good God, we had guys with twelve or fifteen rolls under their bunk," he recalls. "And toilet paper is something you can make things out of. They'll take it apart, braid things. Not to mention stopping up the sewer. Now they give us their empty roll and they can get another. But that's unusual. I never use more than a roll a week unless I'm a sick boy."

Past sewer problems at KCCC may have something to do with the decision to begin rationing toilet paper. During a May inspection, ACLU lawyers discovered that the jail was using prisoners to clear excrement and other blockages that accumulated every few days in a poorly designed holding tank in the main sewer line. Or, as the attorneys later described it, prisoners were ordered to "wade through any overflowing sewage...[and] manually scrape off the human waste into a wheelbarrow, to then go into the tank with shovels and scoop up the human waste, putting that sewage into wheelbarrows. These wheelbarrows are then taken over a small hill on KCCC's property and dumped in open piles." Deeming sewage-surfing to be cruel and unusual punishment, the ACLU obtained an injunction to prohibit the jail from employing inmates in such a manner.

By far the single greatest area of contention at the jail, though, concerns the quality and timeliness of medical care. Inmates say they often have to wait three to five weeks to see a doctor, on matters ranging from painful infections and back spasms to needed medications. (In Colorado, prisoners receive regular physical exams and have their teeth cleaned every six months.) And they claim some of their buddies are in such poor shape they should never have been sent to Texas--like Frank Mares.

Mares, a 62-year-old inmate serving time for DUI convictions, died of a heart attack in his Karnes County cell in June. He had a history of heart problems and had reportedly gone to the infirmary twice earlier on the day of his fatal attack, only to be told he would be put on the doctor's list. Two of Mares's cellmates have claimed KCCC staff were slow to respond to their requests for help when he collapsed that evening--one says it took forty minutes for an ambulance to arrive--but Ellis says he's satisfied with his staff's handling of the situation.

"I saw Frank the day before [he died] and asked how he was doing," Ellis recalls. "He said, 'Pretty good, boss.' From the time he passed out in his house till he was pronounced dead was under ten minutes."

The president of the Bobby Ross Group also bristles at the suggestion that his people could have prevented Mares's death. "The reports we got back from the autopsy, his arteries were all clogged up," Ross says. "There was a nurse on duty, CPR was given, and the ambulance was there in something like four minutes. We certainly had an interest in trying to save this man's life, but some disgruntled inmate--and there are plenty of them down there--would just dial up somebody and say we killed this guy."

The DOC's Griego says the jail staff recently agreed to revise its procedure to expedite dental requests but that medical care for the prisoners appears to be more than adequate. "This just isn't an issue," he insists. "But there are inmates who've said they're going to do whatever they can, through the press or whatever, to point out how terrible it is down there because, whether it is or not, their whole motive is get back to Colorado. I'd probably be doing the same thing if I was a thousand miles from my family."

Two weeks ago a 25-year-old Colorado prisoner collapsed and died in the recreation yard of San Antonio's Bexar County Adult Detention Center--but DOC officials say that death, too, was from natural causes.

In fact, the department is so pleased with the way things have worked out in Texas that it recently renewed its contract with Karnes County for another year. Bobby Ross says his company is planning a number of changes to try to make things easier for the inmates, including the installation of video phones that would allow inmates to see their loved ones in Colorado and make a "personal" appearance before Colorado parole-hearing officers.

A similar arrangement at the company's Newton County facility allows Virginia inmates to visit with family members who gather at a church back home. "That seems to help a whole lot, being able to have a color picture of the inmate," Ross says.

But not even the latest technology can placate the jail's critics. "The staff, for the most part, try to do the best job they can with what they have," says David Crosby. "But this is still a county jail. We're state prisoners doing long-term incarceration. It's just not suitable."

Garry Izor wonders if the public grasps the difference between jails and prisons and the kind of time one is expected to do in each--or if, for that matter, anyone outside the system gives a damn about prisoners' gripes.

"It's odd to me that they can so easily change my life with a single pen stroke," he says. "You have a life in the penitentiary, you know--the best you can, under the circumstances--and they take that away. I don't understand it. We haven't done anything to come down here. They just didn't know how bad it would be, just like the people in Bowie didn't know they were going to be maced and beaten. It's not something they put in their brochures."

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