By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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."
A collection of Westword articles on Colorado prisons.
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.
"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.
"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).
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.
The medical department was particularly devastated by the upheaval. The prison opened with seven registered nurses on staff. It now has two and relies heavily on part-time help. Recently, the administration announced that it would no longer have medical personnel on site available to tend to its 750 inmates in the wee hours of the morning; after-hour emergencies have been assigned to an "on-call" administrator with a pager.
"Our medical situation is kind of weak right now," Warden Waller acknowledges, "but we're working to resolve that."
Former staffers say that many of those who left were appalled by the brutal treatment of inmates. In addition, some guards were openly hostile to anyone who treated the inmates with consideration, such as the nurses.
"They've had other staff leaving by the droves, too," says a nurse who quit a few weeks ago. "I think it's the lack of training and the demands of working relatively short all the time."
"They hired a bunch of people who had no idea what they're doing," says Jack Carr, a KCCC inmate serving fourteen years for attempted murder. "They were told that they were getting the worst of the worst of the scum of the earth and that they had to treat us thataway. That's why they had so many problems when they first opened. You treat us like animals and we're going to treat you like an animal."
Carr was among the second group of medium-security inmates transferred to Kit Carson when it opened last December. Coming from the relatively friendly confines of CCA's Appleton operation, they were hustled into a prison that wasn't quite finished, with bare concrete floors and no shelves in the cells to store belongings. Even more disconcerting was the confrontational mentality of the security staff, several of whom had shaved their heads in a show of solidarity. In the first month, Carr says, there were a couple of "wild fights" between inmates and staff.
"The main problem was, you had a captain who was sticking his fingers in somebody's chest," Carr says. "Somebody who's done ten or twelve years. You don't do that. You don't want to be touching an inmate, especially when you got thirty of them in a dead-end corridor. He got what he asked for. He Maced a few guys, but he got the shit kicked out of him."
Even worse, Carr says, was the way some CCA supervisors treated their own green corrections officers. "They treated the COs like garbage," he says. "You can't browbeat your own employees in front of inmates and expect them to have any respect."
Ron Alford, the former warden, couldn't be reached for comment about his management of the prison. But a former employee who answered the phone at Alford's home defended the corrections veteran as "a man of honor and integrity" who's been scapegoated by the DOC.
Some former staffers describe Alford as a "puffed-up Texan" who helped promote a "John Wayne attitude" toward inmates. Once the floors were finished, a double yellow line was painted down each corridor. Inmates were supposed to walk on the outside of the line, staff on the inside. Any breach of the so-called Texas line could result in sending an entire squad of inmates back to their pod rather than allowing them to proceed to supper.
"Warden Alford kept telling us they were going to correct things, and they never did," says Judy Mitchek, a former director of the nursing staff who resigned last spring. "One day he said to me, 'In this facility, I am God.' That didn't sit with me real good."
Warden Waller says the line is no longer strictly enforced. "I've never heard anyone say they were going to write a disciplinary report on someone who stepped over it," he says. "I didn't come in to talk about the yellow line or the yellow brick road or anything like that."
Waller says he's "not been made aware of any excessive force used by staff" since he arrived at Kit Carson, but inmates say examples of such force during the Alford regime are plentiful. One would-be escapee who crashed through a ceiling was allegedly beaten by staff for his trouble. Another prisoner suffered a black eye and several other injuries while being "extracted" from his isolation cell by a heavily equipped Special Operations Response Team. The cell extraction was supposedly necessary because the inmate had refused to submit to a blood test after throwing urine on a guard, but one source familiar with the event insists that the SORT team had prepared to storm the cell well before the inmate's refusal. And then there was the public thrashing of Lewis Simpson, plus several other alleged assaults triggered by far less serious infractions, during the lockdown.
"These people harass and intimidate you," says Anthony Orduno, who's serving a ten-year sentence for vehicular assault. "They think that's the only way you can control a facility like this. I would pay these guys rent to get me out of here. It's been an absolute nightmare."
Orduno arrived at KCCC with a fractured left eye socket, the result of an attack by another inmate in Minnesota. When he demanded medical attention and threatened to call his lawyers, he says, he was assaulted and harassed. "They'll come in and shake my house, mash my face in the wall while patting me down," he says.
In all, Orduno claims to have suffered seven assaults since he came to Kit Carson. The worst one, he says, came just a few weeks ago, after he mentioned to another inmate a rumor that someone had "taken out a contract" on a much-disliked guard. A few hours later, that same guard visited him and told him he was being taken to administrative segregation -- "thrown in the hole," in prison lingo -- on a charge of threatening an officer.
"He comes in with another guard, handcuffs me, and as I'm walking out the door, he kicks me in the nuts and the other guard pops me in the eye," he says.
Orduno spent two weeks in the hole. All charges against him were then dismissed. He's had no satisfaction from Warden Waller, he says, and other KCCC officers have warned him against talking to the DOC's investigators.
"I was told from the get-go that if I made a statement, my chances of getting out of here were zero," he says. "I would bet money that they try to ad-seg me for this [interview]. This is the birthplace of retaliation. I'm surprised they don't hold seminars on how to do it."
Almost every inmate contacted by Westword (and some staffers as well) expressed fear of retribution for talking to a reporter. Waller says he "can't recall having one inmate that has brought to me an issue about any kind of retaliation." Often, he notes, inmates make such claims when they're being disciplined for their own bad behavior.
Yet the problems that have surfaced at Kit Carson are more complicated than the friction between aggressive guards and defiant prisoners. If some staff were quite willing to manhandle their charges, others were apparently prepared to do business with them. And the business, by all accounts, could be quite lucrative.
One night last April, four male supervisors at Kit Carson -- a captain, a lieutenant and two sergeants -- allegedly led a young female corrections officer into a deserted office at the prison. Some shenanigans ensued involving handcuffs and pepper spray. All four of the male officers were subsequently dismissed for sexual harassment. (One staffer, who apparently had a peripheral role in the affair, was fired and later rehired.) The female officer was soon promoted to sergeant.
Warden Alford reportedly said that the officers were engaging in "horseplay, but the recipient didn't perceive it that way." No criminal charges have been filed over the incident, although Mark Adams, the district attorney for Kit Carson County, says he hasn't ruled out such a move.
CCA acted swiftly to deal with this embarrassing case of misfired horseplay, but in other instances, it's been far more circumspect. Inmates are full of lurid gossip about staffers being caught in compromising positions with other officers' wives or husbands, despite a company policy against fraternization. Some employees have allegedly been dismissed after such encounters; others haven't. Although the morale questions raised by these stories are troubling enough, administrators have also been wrestling with violations of an even greater taboo: sexual relationships between staff and inmates.
The DOC and CCA have been understandably tight-lipped about discussing any aspects of the allegations of sexual misconduct. "There is an ongoing investigation," notes CCA spokeswoman Susan Hart. "In order not to jeopardize that, I can't comment on any specifics."
But according to staff and inmate sources, one male officer and several female staffers are suspected of having sex with prisoners, resulting in at least one pregnancy. Some of the liaisons may have been romantic entanglements, but in others, the motive apparently was profit. Prostitution, along with a thriving black-market business in cigarettes and dope, managed to find their way into Kit Carson shortly after it opened.
A medium-security prison may not seem like the ideal place for bumping uglies with the opposite sex, but Kit Carson had all the right ingredients: an inexperienced, underpaid staff, 40 percent of them female; a horde of seasoned cons, well-versed in scams; and a glaring absence of supervision.
Security was so lax that one female officer boasted of receiving a tattoo from a prisoner while she was on duty. For months, one entire pod was virtually empty, offering a convenient meeting place for staff and prisoners during the under-manned night shift. There was also a utility closet that quickly became known as the "fuck closet," a place for discreet encounters of an urgent nature. For as little as a hundred bucks a week, inmates say, the right Mr. Wrong could get a can of tobacco, maybe a little marijuana, and a trip to the closet for good measure.
"You'd be surprised what some of these guys have," says Jack Carr. "Not in their inmate accounts, but all it takes is a phone call. If I wanted you to bring something in here and I was willing to pay you, I could have somebody send you a money order to a post-office box, money that doesn't even connect to you."
Carr believes that the temptation to make a little extra money on the side would have been "huge" among employees making ten bucks an hour. "I just do my time, but some of these inmates really make it hard on staff," he says. "You can't come in here and work right with them all day long without them trying to get close to you, trying to get you to do things for them."
Tobacco smuggling has been a problem throughout the state's prisons ever since the DOC banned smoking by inmates earlier this year. The department declined to prohibit tobacco use by staff, though, making it virtually impossible to keep cigarettes out of the nicotine-stained hands of prisoners. Cans of tobacco and especially tailor-made smokes have become an underground currency in places like Kit Carson. A single cigarette can be chopped into three stubs that sell for three to five dollars each, and an entire pack can command between $180 and $300.
Inmates say the tobacco trade was sanctioned, in part, by upper management at Kit Carson, since informants who snitched on other prisoners' contraband operations were often rewarded with a pack of Marlboros, in violation of DOC policy. "You can get a cigarette any time you want in here," says Orduno. "You just tell on somebody."
Waller denies that his staff pays informants in any fashion. "If that was done, that's not the case now," he says. "I've told my staff that if I catch somebody doing that they will be severely disciplined." He's spent "an extensive amount of time," he adds, working on eradicating the contraband problem.
Several sources say that the tobacco business, like the sex trade, appears to be dwindling in the wake of the DOC's investigation, but it hasn't entirely disappeared. "A couple weeks ago they found two packs of Pall Malls in somebody's cell," says one staffer. "You can't get that through visitation. It's the staff."
Ironically, prisoners report that marijuana may now be easier to obtain at KCCC than tobacco. "On the street, if you buy a joint, you buy a half-gram of weed," says Carr. "In here it's a pinch, and it's five times the price. But you can buy it cheaper than cigarettes."
"I personally saw a pound of weed not too long ago," says another inmate. "For something like that to get in, it's got to be brought in by a guard."
It's possible that harder drugs were circulating freely in the prison in its first months of operation. One nurse recalls seeing what appeared to be needle tracks on the arms of an inmate whom she suspected of shooting heroin or coke, as well as others who wouldn't let her see their arms. Several of her patients reeked of tobacco or pot, she says.
Some of the prison's critics are pessimistic about CCA's ability to clean up the place. "The inmates are smarter than the staff," says one employee, who asked to remain anonymous. "Most of these people haven't been doing this for very long, and the inmates know how to get around the system. I think DOC should kick the company out and take it over."
Of all the blunders and follies in the brief history of Kit Carson, none have generated more outrage and bitterness from prisoners than the July lockdown. The official reason for the heavy-handed show of force, which lurched along for almost a week, was a rumor that someone had smuggled a gun into the prison, requiring a cell-by-cell search. But similar shakedowns in state prisons last only a day or two, and many inmates believe that the rumor was only a pretext to allow the SORT team, angered by the beating of a colleague, to humiliate and terrorize the entire inmate population.
The inmates' version of the affair, corroborated by several sources, is this:
After Lewis Simpson's failed escape attempt on Saturday, July 17, inmates were confined to their cells for the rest of the day. On Sunday, a corrections officer was attacked by an inmate after refusing his request for toilet paper. The prison was again locked down for a few hours, but the real trouble began the following day.
On Monday afternoon, inmates were hustled into their cells for a head count ten minutes early. They remained locked down for the next four days. A few were stripped to their boxers and escorted to the hole for the next 36 hours. Water was turned off in the cells, and no meals were served until almost midnight. Although a small cup of juice was provided with the meal, requests for drinking water were ignored.
On Tuesday, breakfast trays were left on the floor outside many cells for several hours before inmates were allowed to retrieve them. Hot water was restored to the cells that evening, but since the toilets still didn't flush, the occupants were confronted with a rising, inescapable stench. "Fortunately, we were both able to forgo defecating," reports one inmate, "although my cellie skipped several meals to forestall the inevitable as long as possible."
On Wednesday inmates were strip-searched and ordered into the corridor while the SORT team tossed their cells. The operation seemed to be designed not to uncover a weapon but to destroy as much inmate property as possible. Bulky bags that might contain contraband were undisturbed, some inmates say, while photos, legal papers, cassette players and other items were thrown into a pile in the middle of the floor.
"All my commissary was dumped on the floor," says Carr. "They stomped on it. Squeeze bottles of cheese all over the place, aftershave, hair cream -- everything."
Ken Aragon's day was even worse. While waiting in the corridor, being sniffed by a guard dog and harangued, Aragon made the mistake of speaking to a female SORT member. Aragon says he merely asked how long the search was going to take. The officer, who had been brought in from CCA's Walsenburg prison to assist in the shakedown, berated him and ordered him up against the wall.
"She just pushed me into the wall and started handcuffing me," Aragon says. "I hit my face. The handcuffs were really tight, and she got me in some kind of wrist lock. The whole pod saw what was going on."
"Aragon seemed to be grimacing in pain," says another inmate who witnessed the incident. "The officer began marching him down the hall, presumably to segregation. He offered no resistance whatsoever. The officer put her leg in front of him and pushed him forward, clearly attempting to throw him to the concrete. He still offered no resistance but was able to maintain his balance. As the two of them came to the crash gate, she pushed him face-first into the gate."
The female officer was joined at that point by a male officer from Kit Carson, and the two of them escorted a bent-over Aragon out of sight of the rest of the pod. "They had their weight on me," Aragon says. "They both pushed me into the next crash gate, and I hit my head again. Then they ran me into the seg door, head-first, and slammed me into the bed.
"The lady got on my back and put her knee on my spine and continued to twist my wrist. I think she was trying to break it. The other one was trying to hit me in the ribs. They left me on the bed handcuffed and told me if I moved a muscle, they'd have the whole SORT team come in and beat me up worse."
Aragon spent a day in the hole but was never charged with any infraction. His right wrist is bruised and bandaged. Although no bones were broken, he says he still suffers dizziness and back pain and is scheduled for a CAT scan. He says officers have "torn up his house" and taunted him since he filed a grievance over his treatment.
"Yesterday one of the COs said I was dealing with this like a pussy," Aragon says. "Since I talked to you, I might get beat and harassed more."
Cold water and sewer service were finally restored to the cells Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, inmates were allowed to shower, and on Friday, other operations began to return to normal. No gun was found as a result of the shakedown, although officials did report finding two homemade knives.
Two weeks later, Warden Alford was abruptly replaced. His successor acknowledges that the lockdown left a lot of hard feelings among inmates and staff alike. Waller says future shakedowns will be videotaped to ensure that they're conducted properly.
"I've heard a lot of the things you're talking about from the inmate population back there, and that concerns me," says the new warden, who habitually refers to the cell blocks as "back there." "Believe it or not, that concerns me. You got to manage these guys. You can't beat 'em over the head -- I'm using that term loosely now, don't quote me on that -- but what I'm saying is, you got to win their confidence to some extent.
"There are some issues that we're changing. Controlled movement, more freedom, a lot more activities -- recreation and hobby craft and those kinds of things. We're not about tearing up property and degrading inmates. That's not my management style. All it does is create problems."
Whether Alford's removal was a direct result of the lockdown is unclear. The KCCC kitchen manager was also relieved of duty around the same time, and state investigators are reportedly looking into allegations that the kitchen may have been a conduit for contraband. In addition, rumors continue to circulate that employees made under-the-table deals with vendors connected to inmates' families and converted food-service supplies to personal use. No charges have been filed in the matter, but District Attorney Mark Adams confirms that a criminal investigation is continuing.
In fact, despite a tide of firings and resignations, no formal charges have resulted from any of the alleged offenses by Kit Carson staff except one -- Shanna Turpin, a former corrections officer, is accused of introducing contraband into the prison. Her case is still pending. Other ex-employees say they're considering civil litigation against CCA.
Burlington attorney Wade Gateley represents three former employees, including a food-service worker who claims that her firing was the result of sexual harassment and her whistleblowing activities. "It's not just that things are wrong," Gateley says of Kit Carson, "but they seem to be consistently wrong."
Many inmates give Waller high marks for the changes he's made. "I think in another year, eighteen months, this place will be running smooth as Minnesota was," says Jack Carr. "But they do have a lot of problems. When you got private citizens that don't have a clue running a prison, you've got problems."
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.
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."