One Bad Turn Deserves Another

Legislators try to tighten the state's grip on prisoners.

Under a proposal making its way through the state legislature, prison guards in Colorado won't be taking any more shit from prisoners. In one of several measures that may make prison tougher for inmates, guards would get further protection from one of the more unpalatable forms of protest launched by inmates, namely bodily secretions including spit, urine, feces and semen.

According to Larry Schwarz, a Republican who represents the area that includes the state prisons in and near Canon City, the proposal was not inspired by the scene in Silence of the Lambs in which Jodie Foster catches a faceful of semen from a deranged prisoner in the cell next to Hannibal Lecter's. He insists that the inspiration comes from incidents that really occur in Colorado prisons.

In turn, legislators are about to throw the book at prisoners by making such actions felonies.

Bob Sylvester, head of a home for parolees and an ex-con himself, says the fact that there is even a need for this bill should be instructive.

"If you treat a person like an animal, he is going to act like an animal," says Sylvester. "We are turning these places into animal cages. There's got to be a damn good reason they are throwing this stuff."

It's been a harsh legislative session for prisoners. The only proposal that even hints at reform is doomed to fail, says its sponsor, Republican representative Phil Pankey of Littleton, who is proposing an increase in the pay received by inmates for work. Of course, the bill also calls for a corresponding increase in charges for things like room and board.

Under that bill, inmates who now work for about $1 a day could make as much as minimum wage. But in addition to making deductions for living expenses, the prison could extract part of an inmate's wages to pay compensation to victims of whatever crime the prisoner was incarcerated for in the first place. The bill would also allow inmates to make money on arts and crafts created in their cells, but that money, too, would be paid to victims or the prison.

"It teaches them what life is all about: You make money and then you have to pay for stuff," says Pankey.

Sylvester says he agrees with the approach in Pankey's bill but worries that it gives too much power to the Division of Correctional Industries ("Con Jobs," November 14, 1996). The legislative lobbyist for the Department of Corrections, Rich Schweigert, argues that because the inmates would never actually see the money, the program wouldn't achieve the goal Pankey is aiming for and would create a bookkeeping nightmare.

But Pankey says the DOC is concerned only with preserving the status quo while managing an ever-growing number of inmates and is not interested in reform. "I think they operate the system on the basis of protecting state jobs," says Pankey. "They'll be madder than hell at me, but I don't work for them." Schweigert insists that the DOC is involved in numerous rehabilitation efforts but adds that success depends on individual prisoners.

Pankey's other prison bill died early in the session. That measure would have billed inmates $2 per month to pay for the electricity they use for televisions and hot plates. Sylvester says the philosophy of making inmates more responsible is not bad, but if made into law, it would just become another method of control for the prisons. "It's like you've got a dog on the ground with your knee on his neck," he says, "and now what are you going to do? Kick him in the balls?"

One bill that already has passed will, if signed by the governor, make life a little tougher for newly freed prisoners. Under current law, when a prisoner is released, he or she gets two bus tokens and $100. Under the new measure, only those inmates coming out for the first time would get the Ben Franklin; prisoners coming out for the second time would get nothing but the bus tokens. Schweigert defends the measure, saying, "In essence, they now get rewarded for bad behavior." Sylvester contends that the measure would simply mean an increase in robberies in the immediate vicinity of the bus drop-off spot.

One other prison-related bill faces an uncertain future. The original version of House Bill 1133 would have forced anybody convicted of sexual assault on a child to take Depo-Provera, a birth-control drug for women that some studies suggest reduces testosterone in men, thereby reducing their sex drive. The bill, written by Representative Doug Dean, a Colorado Springs Republican, refers to the treatment as "chemical castration." After consultation with Schweigert, the bill now includes the option of medications that have been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for treatment of psychiatric conditions. Depo-Provera is not FDA-approved as a treatment for sexual offenders. Under the bill, inmates could avoid chemical castration by agreeing to the old-fashioned kind--going under the knife.

Some prison guards probably wouldn't mind performing that procedure on a few inmates. State representative Schwarz, a former deputy sheriff, says he spent time with prison guards on full shifts, not just on the sort of tours arranged for lawmakers. On one of those shifts, according to Schwarz, a supervisor told him he couldn't go to a particular cell block because a prisoner had taken the remnants of a bowel movement and thrown it at a guard. Other inmates, according to Schwarz, have been known to urinate on guards or even make concoctions with urine and sour milk and throw that at guards. "It's really gross," says Schwarz.

Inmates know that punching a guard is a felony, so most avoid doing that. But throwing bodily secretions is a misdemeanor that rarely gets prosecuted. Schwarz says he wants prisoners to know he's serious about protecting the guards, so his bill would make even spitting on a guard a felony that would add from two to six years to a sentence.

The bill would also help guards in one other way. Under current privacy laws, a guard can't find out about the medical history of an inmate. If Schwarz's bill becomes law, the guards will be considered victims of felony assault if they get hit with a bodily secretion. And under another part of Colorado law, victims of felony assault have the right to learn about the medical history of their assailants. Schwarz says guards are concerned that they could be exposed not only to HIV, but to hepatitis, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. Under his measure, they could find out just what they are dealing with.

And there may be more clashes between guards and prisoners, simply because the prison population is growing. Perhaps the most significant single bit of prison legislation this session is House Bill 1244, under which DOC would build 660 new beds in Trinidad and Pueblo and overhaul 500 more beds at the Four Mile and Buena Vista complexes.

Schweigert says the boom is just beginning. Notes the lobbyist, "I can foresee needing a [capital construction] bill every year."

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