McPrison

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

"That place was poorly staffed, and the people who worked there were poorly trained," says Marvin Vasicek, a 61-year-old inmate who was recently moved from KCCC to the new state prison at Sterling. "A lot of those people had never worked in corrections before, and they were just out of their realm. It's incredible to have that many officers getting involved in that much under-the-table stuff."

CCA is cooperating fully with her department's investigation of the prison, McDonough says. "A lot of the problems we believe have been addressed," she adds. "There are people who have left their employ who we believe were responsible for the less-than-adequate operation of the place."

Kit Carson's new warden, Dolan Waller, is a quiet, by-the-book company man who politely declines to comment on any events that might have occurred at the prison before he arrived six weeks ago. ("I'm not aware of any investigation by DOC at all concerning former management," he told Westword during an interview three weeks ago, a few days before McDonough confirmed that "a full investigation was conducted and is continuing.") As he sees it, the problems at KCCC are typical of the growing pains of a private prison in a part of the state that's never had a prison before.

Rolling stock: Inmate Ken Aragon (pictured above), Jack Carr and Anthony Orduno have done most of their time in private prisons, but they say Kit Carson was a new low.
Rolling stock: Inmate Ken Aragon (pictured above), Jack Carr and Anthony Orduno have done most of their time in private prisons, but they say Kit Carson was a new low.
Inmate Jack Carr.
Inmate Jack Carr.

"I've been in some start-up facilities before," Waller says. "It honestly takes a year-plus to get things smoothed out and get the staff comfortable with inmates. For that first year, maybe more, it's a training mode."

But inmates and former KCCC staffers tell a different story. The prison has been plagued by turnover and inept management, they say, and remains dangerously understaffed -- to a degree that the prison has even hired back some employees who were dismissed for blatant violations of company policy. Although many of the changes Waller has implemented have been welcomed, there are still reports of smuggling, improper relationships between inmates and staff (including rumors of at least one pregnancy), and retaliation against prisoners who complain to the DOC or the media about prison conditions. And many question the DOC's commitment to force changes at Kit Carson. After all, the DOC needs the beds -- not only in Burlington, but at CCA's other franchises in Walsenburg and Las Animas -- to handle its overflow of prisoners, which is expected to increase in coming years despite the opening of Sterling and other state prisons.

Many of the prisoners at Burlington came there from CCA's prison in Appleton, Minnesota. Although they are technically Colorado's prisoners, it's been two or three years since they were in a state facility; some have spent almost all of their time in the hands of CCA and have found a world of difference between one private prison and the next.

"I could never understand how it could be so different," says Vasicek. "It was a relaxed atmosphere in Minnesota. They had good jobs, a broad educational program. But this place -- man, it was a shock."

Grace Aragon says her own complaints to the DOC about Kit Carson have gone nowhere. "They say it's not their problem," she says. "It's like a stepchild or something."


In September, the road to Burlington is lined with all the glories of the high plains in late summer. Thick fields of sunflowers awaiting harvest. Grazing cattle. Rolls of hay drying in the sun.

Steel fences and uniformed guards.

Burlington itself is a study in how one kind of economy can be rapidly replaced by another. There are new motels along the highway and notices of foreclosure sales at the courthouse. The town's famous, elegantly restored carousel is only a short walk from a closed Dairy Queen desperately seeking a buyer. "Fully convinced of miracles," proclaims the sign outside the Bethel Assembly of God Church -- and, on the southern edge of town, just before the pavement ends, a miracle of sorts has sprouted next to an alfalfa field: the Kit Carson Correctional Center.

With its plum-purple entranceway and blockish, warehouse-like design, Kit Carson resembles a kind of big-box store -- a Wal-Mart with razor wire, built to keep its customers from ever leaving. It's a glorified meat locker, a gleaming beacon to locals looking to move on from farming and ranching to the cold-storage business. To a great extent, the community's future now rests on its ability not to raise healthy crops but to store bad apples.

The scenario is a familiar one, repeated in rural communities across the country. An overloaded state prison system needs someplace to stash its excess of inmates. A dying farm town is eager to lure new industry. Enter the private-prison operator, who promises to ease the state's burden and hire the yokels in exchange for a steady subsidy of public dollars.

No operator plays the game better than Corrections Corporation of America, the Tennessee-based company that runs 82 prisons and jails in 26 states and abroad. Founded in 1983 by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors, CCA has become the world's largest private-prison operator. Its total empire is four times the size of the Colorado state system, and many of its prisons, including the ones in Walsenburg and Las Animas, are fully accredited by the American Correctional Association ("Captive Market," August 26).

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