Maxed Out

Shipping inmates to private prisons is Colorado's cheap solution to overcrowding and violence. But so far, it's cost plenty.

"These guys wanted to make a point," says former DOC inmate Lee Burke, who served five years at Crowley but was released a few months before the riot. "Not a single one of them tried to escape. They broke into the maintenance warehouse to take tools to destroy the facility."

The mutiny at Crowley was started by recently arrived inmates from the state of Washington -- who, like the Colorado men at Tallahatchie, were greatly distressed at being stuck in a private hoosegow more than a thousand miles from home. But Crowley, unlike Tallahatchie, is a medium-security facility, and the Colorado inmates who joined in the destruction included many low-level, non-violent offenders -- the more typical clientele for private prisons, which generally take the "cream of the crop" of a state's overflow convicts rather than its troublemakers.

Advocates of privatization say that "facility disturbances" -- prison-speak for riots -- are a fact of life even in the best-run prisons, and that CCA has had no more than its share of them. But the circumstances surrounding the Crowley bust-up and ongoing security issues at Tallahatchie suggest otherwise. The problem may have less to do with the type of inmate housed there than with the way for-profit prisons are managed.

Alfredo Garcia
Alfredo Garcia
Greg Ewing
Greg Ewing

Caught in a budget squeeze and reluctant to parole even non-violent offenders, Colorado's prison system has failed to keep up with its rising inmate population, which now stands at 18,700 and is expected to increase by another 4,000 by 2008. To relieve overcrowding, the DOC has come to rely heavily on CCA, which has become the sixth-largest prison system in the country, housing more than 62,000 inmates in twenty states. Despite a longstanding policy of keeping its highest-security prisoners in its own system, Colorado is now using the private contractor to handle its special management cases as well. Prisoners say the Mississippi experiment is a formula for more violence, given the mounting evidence of CCA's deficiencies -- including substandard conditions, inadequate training, high turnover, understaffing and chronic security lapses.

Going private was supposed to save Colorado a bundle of money and reduce the violence in state prisons. But cut-rate corrections is like cut-rate surgery: You get what you pay for.

Sometimes what you get is a cage with a cheap lock.

A decade ago, the state's solution for unruly inmates was the Colorado State Penitentiary, a 504-bed control-unit prison designed to house "the worst of the worst" in total isolation. When it opened in 1993, CSP was hailed as the latest thing in behavior modification of incorrigibles and was widely studied by prison officials from other states interested in building their own costly supermax prisons.

In its early years, CSP was used so capriciously that it featured one unit of female prisoners guilty of such dire crimes as "verbal abuse" and "smoking in the hole." But before long, CSP was filled to capacity with gangbangers, escape risks and seriously violent offenders. (Twelve percent of its current residents have been diagnosed as mentally ill.) A 252-bed addition in 1998 hardly made a dent in the waiting list.

One reason for the crunch was the overall growth of the prison population, but there were other factors, too. Largely because of its aggressive anti-gang policy, Colorado tends to classify more of its prisoners as administrative-segregation -- its highest custody level, replacing the old "maximum security" designation -- than do most other states. The tag now applies to 7 percent of the DOC's population, roughly double the national average. And a bottleneck has developed within CSP itself, which was originally intended to offer an eighteen-month disciplinary program; now the average length of stay there is 31 months.

Critics of the supermax approach contend that it intensifies the problem it's trying to address. "Once they get in, they don't get out for years," says Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "It becomes the path of least resistance for the administration, but it also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The research shows that the consequences of long-term solitary confinement are anti-social behavior and an increase in propensity for violence."

Donner acknowledges that the DOC needs to isolate prisoners for various reasons. Still, she believes the department relies too heavily on branding its problem prisoners ad-seg rather than using "disciplinary segregation" to put them in solitary confinement for a fixed period of time as punishment for a specific offense.

"Like incarceration in general, the more you use it, it has a diminishing deterrent effect," she says. "Once you've been through it and you're no longer scared of it, what are they going to do with you?"

Last year the DOC's efforts to build a second, $80-million supermax, known as CSP II, were stalled when Donner's group sued. The lawsuit, which challenges the use of certificates of participation to get around state restrictions on multi-year debt, also tied up planned construction at the new Fitzsimons campus of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, but the supermax expansion was the prime target.

A string of gang-related rumbles at three state prisons earlier this year sent officials scrambling to find more ad-seg beds. Blocked by litigation from building another CSP, they began to consider what the DOC has always insisted is a last resort -- shipping inmates out of state -- in order to remove suspected gang leaders from their "power base."

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muhutdafuga topcommenter

Didn't the worst president in modern history say the privatization would be all happy, happy, joy, joy?  This is just one of the many many many many failures of reaganomics.