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McPrison

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

Overcoming the prison's legacy of violence and corruption is only part of the challenge Waller is facing. KCCC's biggest problem may be the one the prison has faced since it first opened: recruiting, training and retaining a competent, professional staff. The shift in leadership hasn't stopped the horrendous turnover, and several sources estimate that current staffing levels are well below the 200 full-time employees that officials claim. Some corrections officers have been asked to pull double shifts, and non-security personnel say they've been enlisted to come into the cafeteria during mealtimes to give the impression that there are more guards on duty than are actually available.

The situation can be harrowing at night, when a skeleton crew of a dozen or so officers are supposed to supervise 750 inmates, many of whom are allowed to be outside of their cells as late as one o'clock in the morning on weekends. According to one staffer, in recent weeks the night shift has consisted of as few as nine officers.

Yet nothing in CCA's contract with the City of Burlington, or in Burlington's contract with the DOC, specifies how many employees the company must have on duty at any given time.

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.

Asked about the short-staffing allegations, DOC spokeswoman McDonough says, "We'll have to look into that. If it's not specified in the contract, there probably is a requirement to have sufficient operations to maintain public safety. We could certainly bring our concerns to their attention and ask that it be remedied."


In recent weeks, the DOC has moved hundreds of inmates out of CCA's Colorado prisons and into the new state prison at Sterling. The move was planned before the investigation at Burlington and will leave KCCC with almost a third of its beds empty.

Reducing the inmate population should provide some relief from the prison's staffing woes, but it also slashes CCA's revenue stream. The situation is a temporary one, though; prison officials expect the place to be operating at near-capacity again in a few months, after Sterling is full. "DOC has assured us that they will fill us back up," says Waller. "I have no reason to doubt them."

Whatever the outcome of the current state investigation, it probably won't affect the growing presence of the private prison industry in Colorado. Lured by the promise of an economic boost, more communities are getting into the business at the same time that public corrections systems are deteriorating. Last week, while officials in Costilla County were shutting down their jail because it's unfit for habitation, other San Luis Valley residents were pushing for a private prison in Antonito. The trend troubles the industry's critics, who believe the state is abdicating its responsibilities in spite of rising evidence of inadequate training and violence at the private operations -- such as the recent death of a corrections officer during a riot at a prison in New Mexico operated by CCA's chief competitor, the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation.

"Why wouldn't you be concerned about security?" asks attorney Gateley. "They take people with no background in law enforcement, train them for a few weeks, put a badge on them and have one CO on the floor at a time for a huge number of inmates. There are huge security concerns at every private facility I know of. But isn't that the DOC's responsibility? These are still their prisoners, and the state has an obligation to protect the public."

Judy Mitchek believes that staffers as well as inmates get shortchanged by the for-profit approach. "We were told that we were a family and that this was a family corporation," she says. "It was not. I was just Employee No. 43 at Facility 53. The corporate people could care less. Their attitude was, 'Just fill the beds, feed them, and put them back in their cells. They're just inmates.'"

Anthony Orduno says the $10-an-hour turnkeys who have abused him are openly contemptuous of his threats of lawsuits and media exposure. They don't seem terribly worried about what the state might do, either.

"They laugh about it," Orduno says. "They say, 'We're going to beat your ass. Nobody's going to help you. Nobody cares.' And that's the attitude that lets them get away with it."

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