McPrison

How a private prison brought jobs-and violence, corruption and scandal-to Burlington.

Saturday, July 17, 1999. Grace Aragon drives 170 miles from her home in Denver to the Kit Carson Correctional Center, a private prison on the outskirts of Burlington, just ten minutes shy of the Kansas border. She comes to visit her son Kenny, who at age 22 has already served nearly three years of a sixteen-year sentence for attempted murder.

Aragon makes every attempt to see her son as often as possible. When Kenny was shipped off to a private prison in Appleton, Minnesota, she flew there once a month. Now that he's in Burlington, she comes every week, even though this prison seems...well, not quite as professional as the one in Minnesota. The Kit Carson staffers frequently make crude or belittling remarks -- not just to inmates, but to their families as well. And they don't always seem to know what they're doing; on past visits, Aragon has seen them abruptly change the rules about dress code or what items visitors were allowed to bring in or out of the place. It seemed to her that some visitors -- Hispanics and blacks, mostly -- would be vigorously searched several times in the course of one visit, while others would be all but ignored.

"They told us that if we didn't like the rules, we didn't have to go out there to visit," Aragon says. "But they were making it up as they went along. Everything changed from one week to the next."

Cold storage: The Kit Carson Correctional Center emplys mostly local workers  --  with no prior corrections experience.
Cold storage: The Kit Carson Correctional Center emplys mostly local workers -- with no prior corrections experience.
Cold storage: The Kit Carson Correctional Center emplys mostly local workers  --  with no prior corrections experience.
Brett Amole
Cold storage: The Kit Carson Correctional Center emplys mostly local workers -- with no prior corrections experience.

On this particular Saturday, the rules seem to have changed once again. Aragon joins a group of inmates' families waiting at the front gate, but no one comes to let them in. Instead, after a few minutes, a Pepsi vendor comes out and, as he heads for his truck, tells them all visits have been canceled.

Aragon and a few others decide to wait. Some Pepsi guy is going to tell you that you can't see your son? Better to hear it from somebody who actually works here. As she waits, Aragon sees a group of corrections officers huddled around a prisoner on a gurney, and now she knows why there will be no visitors today. Someone tried to escape.

The prisoner on the gurney is badly cut up. He is handcuffed and not resisting at all. But that doesn't stop the guards from beating him with their fists, in full view of the horrified group of people at the front gate.

"You could see his body jumping off the gurney when they were hitting him," Aragon says. "They were supposed to be waiting for an ambulance to take him away. If they were giving him medical attention, that was the worst kind I have ever seen."

The man on the gurney, thirty-year-old Lewis Simpson, was serving 56 years for the 1988 murder of a Denver drug dealer. Earlier that day, Simpson had escaped from a solitary recreation yard, slipped undetected past at least two security cameras, crossed a field to the perimeter of the prison grounds and climbed over the first of three fences before getting tangled in the razor wire of the second fence. Records indicate that he was sent to a prison infirmary in Cañon City that day for treatment of his injuries, but not before Kit Carson's crack security team had a chance to compound them.

Simpson's botched escape was the beginning of a rough week at the prison. Within hours of his capture, another inmate savagely attacked a corrections officer after an argument over toilet paper; the inmate was then reportedly beaten by other officers seeking revenge. The entire prison was locked down for days, during which prisoners were denied drinking water, showers or even the ability to flush their toilets. Masked, ninja-like officers shook down cells, methodically destroying prisoners' meager property. By the time Grace Aragon finally saw her son the following weekend, he, too, had been assaulted by staff -- in front of a dozen or more witnesses.

"I would rather have my son in Minnesota and see him but once a month than see the way he's been treated here," Aragon says. "He's been treated like a dog."

Complaints about brutality and erratic management have been filtering out of Burlington ever since the prison opened last December. And shortly after the lockdown, the prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America, quietly removed the Kit Carson warden, Ron Alford. Although still an employee of CCA, Alford remains on "administrative leave" pending

the outcome of various state, local and company investigations into the prison's operations. The change in leadership was made under pressure from the Colorado Department of Corrections, which pays CCA $50 per inmate per day to house up to 768 state prisoners in its private hoosegow -- a taxpayer-funded babysitting contract worth roughly $13 million a year.

"To be candid, we are monitoring that place very closely," says DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough. "When we became aware of problems, we stepped up our presence at that facility and immediately shared our concerns with Corrections Corporation of America."

The DOC's concerns extend beyond the roughing-up of a few convicts. In recent weeks the agency's investigators have made several trips to Burlington, probing allegations of sexual misconduct and smuggling of contraband by staff, as well as inmate gripes about inadequate medical care, canteen ripoffs, unsanitary kitchen conditions and other issues. The operation was so corrupt, inmates say, that for the right price, just about anything a convict might desire -- tobacco, marijuana, liquor, narcotics, even women -- could be obtained at Kit Carson, giving new meaning to the notion of prisons for profit.

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