Hard Cell

As inmates attempt to defy guards and air grievances, a wave of brutal "forced cell entries" rocks Colorado's supermax prison.

This is how Department of Corrections spokeswoman Liz McDonough describes the events of last June at the Colorado State Penitentiary, during which close to a dozen inmates were forcibly "extracted" from their cells and charged with offenses ranging from disobeying a lawful order to assaulting staff and engaging in a riot:

"We had received information that a disturbance was planned. It's my understanding that those extractions dealt with some people who were identified as being involved in this potential disturbance, which never took place."

This is how Roy Slagle, CSP inmate and extractee, describes the way that the DOC special operations squad at the prison goes about preventing a potential disturbance:

"This last cell extraction went like this. I covered my cell window and refused to cuff up. The gooners come in padded up, with helmets on. There's five or six to each team. They line up together in front of your door holding on to one another, and the door opens. The first gooner has a stun shield. They all rush in your cell.

"I got T-rolled by the gooners, 'beat up' this last time like we always do. I received a cut above one eye. My other eye turned purple. I had bumps and scratches all over. The scratches were from the handheld electric tasers...At one point after I was down on the floor, someone put a taser between my legs--yeah, they got me, too. They did others the same way that night. I was choked unconscious after they had control of me.

"Everyone who gets extracted gets a writeup for assault on a guard. It looks good on paper, but the fact is we can't truly harm six men padded up like that. The only people who get assaulted is us."

In the closed world of Colorado's highest-security prison, in which most inmates are confined to their cells 23 hours a day, how you view the practice of removing disobedient prisoners from their cells depends on which side of the bars you're on. DOC officials say the extractions are necessary to control behavior problems among their most dangerous population; most prisoners at CSP are there because of rules violations, attempted escapes or assaults committed while in prison elsewhere. The 755-bed prison, which has influenced the spartan design of "supermax" strongholds in other states, also houses Colorado's death row.

But prisoners and their advocates say the strong-arm tactics are unnecessary, overused and, in many cases, a consequence of the administration's own heavy-handed policies, which have left inmates angry and scrapping for a fight.

"The whole idea of a cell extraction is just absurd," says Denver attorney David Lane, who's taken DOC to court over the practice. "What could be of such urgency that you need to go into a cell and brutalize somebody who's already locked down? How can you have a riot when you're locked in your cell? Who are you going to have a riot with?"

Some prisoners have come to regard the extractions as a kind of contest of wills between inmates and guards, in which each side tries to inflict some damage on the other. "They use excessive force, and some guards seem to get a charge from this," claims Slagle, who's serving time for robbery, assault, escape and parole violation. "Every man but one who got extracted that night had blood on their faces. Not one drop of their [staff's] blood hit the floor...But could be we may get some blood from their coward asses in the future."

Although not always bloody, cell extractions are far from painless. Busted lips, bruised necks and strained or sprained limbs are common, and the use of electronic stun devices can potentially cause respiratory or heart failure. Despite their padding, corrections officers risk injury, too--if not from a belligerent inmate, then from one another as they pile on to subdue the perp. And the fallout from the episode can dog an inmate long after the bruises have healed; the disciplinary actions that result from disobeying staff and being extracted can add months or years to the time a prisoner has to spend in CSP before he's allowed to re-enter the general prison population.

Yet in recent months, inmates have been extracted from their cells at CSP in record numbers. During the first six months of this year, the prison recorded 65 "forced cell entries," an average of one every three days. That's a marked increase over previous years, CSP warden Donice Neal acknowledges. Neal attributes the surge in part to the fact that the prison is getting younger inmates and more gangbangers. But several prisoners tell Westword that many of the extractions stem from inmates trying to "demonstrate" in their locked cells--by, say, refusing to "cuff up" (submit to being handcuffed before the cell is opened)--in order to protest the way the prison is being run.

"Something is seriously wrong if a hundred guys are willing to get beat up to bring attention to these issues," says CSP inmate Dennis Castro.

Warden Neal says that many of the inmate grievances appear to revolve around the opening of a new 252-bed wing at the prison last January. The addition was intended to be a transitional unit for prisoners progressing out of solitary confinement at CSP. But the unit also became home to inmates classified as "close-security"--between medium and maximum--who'd been sent there from elsewhere in the DOC system, often with little notice. Of the 138 inmates currently housed in the unit, 54 came from other prisons.

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