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Hard Cell

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

"We were taking inmates who were being management problems in other facilities but who hadn't reached the point of being segregated yet, and using that as a diversionary program," Neal explains. "As a result, we've had hundreds of moves to fill those cells. We believe that has been a big issue. When you're moving from one home to another, it's disruptive to pack everything up, and when you're doing that to hundreds of people, it has an effect."

Neal says the new unit is "very structured" but not nearly as restrictive as the rest of CSP. But inmates who were shifted there from elsewhere, usually without benefit of a hearing, say they were locked down 23 hours a day in the early months of the unit's operation, and some claim they lost property or legal papers in the process.

"The whole thing is a mess," insists Christie Donner of the Rocky Mountain Peace Center in Boulder, which has been monitoring CSP's treatment of inmates. "When these folks were moved in, they were locked down. We have that from half a dozen sources. They went from 'close' to lockdown without a hearing because the program wasn't ready yet. Technically, that violates their own regulations. The cavalier attitude about this is just infuriating."

But the new unit isn't the only point of tension. Neal says the would-be demonstrations were intended to address "a list of demands, ranging from statute issues--when you're segregated, you're not eligible for good time--to not getting the items from the canteen that they wanted to have." Other burning issues included medical care and an abrupt ban on any incoming or outgoing mail with extraneous writing or drawing on the envelopes, out of fear of gang-related communication. ("The official statement on that policy is that gang members communicate with each other through Garfield [cartoons]," Donner says.) The mail policy has since been relaxed.

The most pervasive complaints, though, have to do with a sense that the usual rules that help keep the peace elsewhere in DOC don't apply at CSP--or are applied capriciously at best. At a recent community meeting DOC officials acknowledged that some CSP staffers had been refusing to give inmates the forms they needed to file grievances, on the pretext that the complaints they had weren't really grievable. (The officials promised to correct the situation.) Staffers at CSP can also make negative, anonymous comments about an inmate's progress in a daily logbook; such comments, known as a "negative chron," can help determine how long a prisoner stays in solitary, even though the prisoner never has an opportunity to review or challenge the allegation and may not even know it exists.

Neal says she's never received any complaints about the daily logs, but inmates say they represent a highly skewed version of their progress. "We are being crossed out without even being able to question what was said," says Dennis Castro, a convicted thief who's been confined at CSP over the stabbing of another inmate (self-defense, according to Castro) for more than four years and can't seem to get out, despite a lack of rules infractions since 1994. "We're already stressed out from being locked up 23 hours a day, and then to get disrespected and wrote up because an officer might be having a personal problem will get to you after a while."

Matters came to a head in June of this year, when CSP was locked down for three days while staff conducted a search for weapons and other contraband. Unannounced searches have been slated for all of DOC's prisons this year, Neal says, but the timing of the CSP lockdown was prompted by rumors of a planned mass demonstration by inmates. The effect of the shakedown was to deprive inmates of what little mobility they had left--the opportunity to leave their cells for showers or exercise, for example. After several days, Slagle and several other inmates in his unit decided to protest by refusing to cuff up, prompting numerous cell extractions.

Using the extractions as means of protest may seem bizarre, but it makes perfect sense in the surreal world of CSP. The inmates were protesting around-the-clock confinement to their cells; they were then forcibly removed for refusing to be cuffed and escorted from their cells. Such is the logic of corrections.

"We foresee mass extractions in the future if we don't start getting treated better," says Slagle. "We got to draw the line somewhere."

Although Neal says that CSP has never had an inmate seriously injured in a cell extraction--an assertion hotly contested by inmates--the DOC brass was sufficiently alarmed by the rash of extractions this summer that top officials recently met with inmates and staff to explore the friction and look for ways to reduce the degree of physical contact. Early in July, CSP's extraction teams adopted a new procedure for forced cell entry. They now gas the miscreants with oleoresin capsicum--pepper spray--before subduing them. "We have not had to do an extraction since we've been using that," Neal reports.

Prisoners say the pepper spray drifts into adjoining cells, gassing others on the same wing. Neal denies this. But the larger question, says attorney Lane, is why DOC even bothers to gas and gang-tackle men who are already trapped in solitary confinement.

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