Going Off

Life in prison can be a riot.

The ease with which the inmates took over the place amazed them. Construction was shoddy, security systems easily defeated, and the shorthanded staff was clearly ill-prepared for the crisis. (There were a total of 47 CCA employees on duty that night, including eight new hires doing on-the-job training, to watch 1,122 inmates.) Initially, management was under the impression that all employees had been evacuated, but that wasn't the case. Two officers who were left behind when their colleagues took off hid in a cell in a segregation unit. A totally forgotten female librarian stayed in the library for hours with 37 inmates who declined to join in the pandemonium.

Shortly after the riot began, Nolin Renfrow, DOC's director of prisons, contacted Crowley's managers and ordered them to use gas to disperse the inmates. But Warden Brent Crouse declined to do so, saying he needed to get approval from CCA corporate headquarters in Tennessee. The confusion over the chain of command -- actually, under the terms of the contract with the state, the DOC has full authority in emergency-response situations -- allowed the prisoners to rampage past midnight, causing millions of dollars' worth of damage.

By the time it was over, state SORT teams and CCA staff had expended hundreds of rounds of buckshot, birdshot, rubber pellets, smoke and "stingball" grenades, and untold liters of pepper spray. Nineteen inmates were seriously injured, including one who'd been stabbed, beaten with weight bars, thrown off the second tier of his cell block, and struck on the head with a microwave oven. Miraculously, no one was killed.

Let's rubble: The July 20 riot caused extensive fire 
damage to the Crowley prison's living units.
Let's rubble: The July 20 riot caused extensive fire damage to the Crowley prison's living units.

What was left of the prison remained in lockdown for almost a month. Prisoners who'd been part of an "honor pod" had refused to let the rioters into their house; their reward was to be shoved into overcrowded cells with no mattresses or shipped off to other, more restrictive prisons and county jails, their personal property lost or destroyed. Thirty-seven CCA employees resigned or were fired in the weeks following the riot, and Warden Crouse was replaced.

The DOC's after-action report on the riot, released in October, blasts CCA management for ignoring the monitors' recommendations, inadequate training of staff, its dithering response the night of the riot. The report urges a number of changes in the operation of the prison, including the novel idea of responding to inmate complaints "in a timely manner." Yet it also acknowledges that, short of canceling its contract, the state has little power to enforce such changes: "At present, there are few mechanisms in place for holding private operators or contractors accountable when deficiencies are delayed or never corrected."

The company "will take the conclusions and recommendations of the report under thoughtful consideration," says CCA spokesman Steve Owen. But the riot is unlikely to alter the state's basic reliance on CCA to house its excess prisoners; Colorado needs private beds now more than ever, since the destruction of half of Crowley's housing units has increased crowding throughout the system.

According to Steve Haden, an inmate at Crowley, the prison is only starting to get back to a "normal" routine five months after the riot -- and little has changed. "The facility remains dangerously understaffed as a result of the mass exodus of security staff," he says. "If the citizens in this state had any idea how the corrections budget was spent, they would be horrified."

"It's not over," says former inmate Burke. "They're going to do it again, now that they know how easy it is."

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