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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.

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.

"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.

Lane once sued the DOC on behalf of a CSP inmate who was "zapped with their little stun shield," but the judge, unpersuaded that the extraction team intended to shock the unresisting inmate into submission, dismissed the case. Lane scoffs at the notion that the extractees pose any kind of security risk.

"The place is steel and concrete," he notes. "What kind of damage is going to be done by them pounding on the door? It's a psychological deal--you will knuckle under or else you get extracted. It's DOC's opportunity to brutalize them and have some fun. Why can't they leave them in their cells and ignore them?"

But Neal says her staff is only trying to protect prisoners from themselves as well as each other. "We are very controlled, but we really work hard at keeping abuse out of the facility," she says. "I think we have some obligation to make the environment in prison as safe as possible, and with the opening of CSP, we have certainly affected the safety of inmates in other facilities."

Donner says she's concerned that CSP's handling of the situation will only further compound the problems by provoking frustrated inmates into more desperate acts of defiance, prompting more cell extractions and longer stays in segregation. Lane suggests that many of the prisoners' complaints, such as the lack of due process involved in denying access to grievance forms or in filing secret negative reports, are unlikely to get an airing in a courtroom because of the increasing "hostility" in the federal courts to prisoner lawsuits.

"It's all legal," Lane says, "if the courts refuse to do anything about it."
Although Roy Slagle has been subject to only two extractions so far, he sees pepper spray and more gooners in his future.

"I was getting my ass beat up in 1987, and I'm still getting it beat up in 1998," he says. "And I'll still be getting beat up in 2008. It's a fact of prison life. So what if a few guards beat me up, put a taser on my nuts, choke me out and so on? I'm in prison. The justice system as a whole holds a blind eye to what we go through year after year."

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