Going Off

Life in prison can be a riot.

At most private prisons, staffers earn far less than state correctional officers, receive less training and are far more likely to quit in their first year on the job. At the Crowley County Correctional Facility outside of Olney Springs, operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the average salary is $21,816 a year plus benefits. The starting wage for a Colorado Department of Corrections officer is $33, 284 a year plus benefits. The annual turnover rate at Crowley is 45 percent.

The stingy budgets, lousy wages and inability to attract and maintain well-trained employees are at the heart of many critics' objections to for-profit prisons. Inmates in CCA's Colorado facilities have greater privileges than their brethren in Tallahatchie, but they have many similar complaints about bad food, poor medical care and a general "lack of professionalism" among staff. Despite supposedly vigilant monitoring by the DOC, things have occasionally gotten out of control -- as they did at Crowley last July, or at CCA's Kit Carson Correctional Facility five years ago, when the prison outside of Burlington underwent a major shakeup after staffers were accused of smuggling drugs and engaging in sex with inmates ("McPrison," September 30, 1999).

The situation at Crowley is particularly revealing. CCA staff and DOC officials had ample notice of problems at the prison weeks before last summer's riot. But CCA did little to address the issues, and the DOC's efforts to compel the company to correct deficiencies amounted to gentle nudges and reminders that were largely ignored.

CCA had bought the prison from Dominion Correctional Services in 2002. Opened in 1998, Crowley had a rocky start, including a 1999 riot instigated by inmates from Washington who were soon sent home. But several former residents say Dominion made many improvements in management, including cutting the target population from 1,200 to 1,000, before it sold the facility.

It soon became apparent that CCA had different ideas about running the place. The company set about building two new housing units, planning to boost capacity to 1,800 without adding more recreation space or kitchen facilities. The number of counts -- the prison equivalent of roll call -- increased dramatically, cutting into rec time and prompting wags to declare that CCA stood for "Can't Count Anything." Food service deteriorated, in both quality and size of portions.

"We were organizing a sit-down because the food was so bad," recalls Chris Richards, a recently paroled Colorado inmate who was moved from Crowley to Kit Carson shortly before the July riot. "I lost 28 pounds in three months. Then I got into seg, and they were serving rotten food there -- rotten peas, rotten lettuce, no meat, no protein. When you got stew, it was all fat."

Richards says he spent a lot of time in ad-seg because of his attempts to protest conditions at Crowley. The DOC monitors who visited the prison, he adds, were no help: "They just ignored me. They didn't like me because I filed grievance after grievance. They said that when I learned to follow the rules, things would go smoother for me."

A DOC monitor visited the prison on a weekly basis. But reports obtained by Westword show that several of the visits last spring and summer were as brief as two hours; in some instances, the monitor didn't have time to visit living units, talk with case managers or observe training or programs. Still, the monitors noted chronic problems with kitchen sanitation ("floors were wet and had trash and boxes scattered"), substitutions in the posted menu ("the soup was very thin and the pudding was also runny, like it had been watered down"), numerous security issues and dismal prisoner morale ("offenders complaining about food and not earning enough money to purchase needed canteen items").

The situation deteriorated further in early July, when 198 Washington inmates arrived to fill one of the new units. Accustomed to more privileges than Crowley offered, the newcomers were disgruntled from the start and didn't care who knew it. Two weeks before the riot, a DOC monitor was told by Colorado prisoners that "the Washington inmates are threatening to 'go off.'" She promptly shared this information with prison staff.

"The staff knew it was coming," says former Crowley inmate Lee Burke. "The complaints had been building since the Washington inmates arrived."

Richards says the influx of new prisoners only intensified the resentments over excessive counts and limited yard time. "All these problems started because there was nothing to lose then," he says. "They were just confining us in our cells."

The DOC's own investigation into the July 20 riot found that "the entire incident may have been due to an improper use of force by CCCF staff." Prisoners say that a guard had body-slammed a handcuffed Washington inmate earlier that day. Around 7:30 that evening, a large group of inmates refused to clear the yard, demanding to speak with the warden.

Flanked by several guards, a captain attempted to speak with the group's leaders, but the staff quickly retreated from the yard and started to evacuate the facility. Emboldened, the inmates poured into the housing units and began to help themselves to free weights. Once they realized no one was going to stop them, they started breaking windows and doors, smashing electronic control centers, busting fixtures and flooding tiers, setting fires and rifling case managers' records, looking for the names of snitches and kiddie-rapers.

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.

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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