McPrison

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

CCA claims to build and operate its prisons for less than the state can while meeting or exceeding state standards for security, training, health care and other services. But many of the studies touting the benefits of privatization -- and regurgitated by true believers such as Denver Post pundit Bob Ewegen, who recently declared his undying affection for CCA -- have been underwritten by the private-prison industry itself. Other, more objective analyses suggest that private prisons don't actually save taxpayers any money and may actually cost more than comparable state operations, particularly if one takes into account the fact that private operators avoid taking prisoners who are mentally ill or HIV-positive or who present other long-term cost and management problems.

"We believe our costs are comparable, once you include things like extraordinary medical," says DOC spokeswoman McDonough. "But right now we have 2,500 inmates [above capacity] and no place to put them. Private prisons are a fact of life."

The DOC isn't authorized to contract directly with private operators. Instead, it makes a deal with a county or municipality, which then subcontracts with a company like CCA to house the inmates. Buoyed by the prospect of nearly doubling its property-tax revenues and by CCA's pledge that many jobs would be filled by residents, Burlington was more than happy to serve as middleman -- particularly since CCA also offered to immunize the city from liability for the company's actions.

The subcontractor arrangement is supposed to guarantee local supervision of the prison's operation, but the actual terms of the deal illustrate just how little control the town has over Kit Carson. The state's contract with Burlington specifies that the city will appoint a "contract employee" who will "conduct and document weekly inspection tours of the facility and also conduct periodic unannounced inspection tours" to ensure that the prison meets certain standards. But from the start, the city's designated contract monitor was Ron Alford, the warden of Kit Carson. In other words, a CCA employee -- the same employee who's now on administrative leave pending the outcome of various investigations -- was supposed to look out for the city's interests and conduct "surprise" inspections.

Despite the obvious conflict of interest, Burlington city administrator Dan Dean defends the arrangement as an expedient one. "We could have hired someone," he says, "but they wouldn't be trained and knowledgeable in corrections."

Until recently, the state's supervision of the prison was almost as obliging. Although complaints about the operation began trickling back to DOC shortly after the prison opened last winter, the DOC renewed the contract for another year in July, only weeks before the lockdown began.

Burlington mayor Russell Sexson says he's received no serious complaints about the prison. "We've been very happy with the economic benefits," Sexson says. "We heard all the stories about what can happen with a prison in your town, but we haven't seen any increase in our social services or law enforcement. There has been some turnover in personnel, but we were told to expect that. I don't think we've seen any repercussions there at all."

In addition to property taxes, CCA paid a materials tax on the prison's construction amounting to more than $200,000, and it continues to pay an "administrative fee" of 25 cents per day per inmate to the city -- around $65,000 a year. The company also hired most of its employees, around 170 out of 200, from Burlington and the surrounding area. Yet it's precisely the emphasis on staffing locally that has caused many of the problems at Kit Carson. Almost none of the local hires had prior experience in corrections; they were given three weeks of classroom instruction and one week on-the-job training before being thrust into positions guarding rapists, murderers, thieves and other felons. The jobs pay around $10 an hour, or $21,000 a year. (By contrast, the DOC offers a slightly longer training program at its academy and pays entry-level officers close to $30,000 a year, with better benefits.)

"Some of the people they hired were people who'd worked at McDonald's or Taco Bell," says one former staffer. "Or they were housewives who'd had heart attacks. We had a couple of little old grandmas who didn't want to work at the grocery store or the nursing home anymore. We had one old man who had trouble with his leg, and he told me, 'As soon as the price of wheat gets better, I'm out of here.'"

Firings and resignations have been common at Kit Carson since it opened. CCA spokeswoman Susan Hart says the company's overall turnover rate is around 12 percent a year. Assistant warden Bill Bridges estimates the rate at KCCC for the past nine months to be around 16 percent. Inmates who've tried to keep track of the numerous staff changes swear it's more like 50 percent. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that many of Burlington's seasonal workers and minimum-wage earners aren't really suited for a high-stress career in corrections; but part of it, too, may have to do with the belligerent attitude of some members of the security staff, who worked hard at intimidating inmates and other staffers alike.

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