Maxed Out

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

"When we had to move twenty guys out of Fremont [prison], it had a domino effect throughout the system," says DOC spokeswoman Morgan. "There were five additional incidents after that. You reach a point where you're just scrambling the pot. You're not isolating the problem; you're just shifting it to another facility."

Although the DOC has shipped excess prisoners to private facilities sporadically since the early 1990s, it had never tried to export high-security prisoners before -- and with good reason. Few contractors are equipped to handle such inmates, and a state law forbids the DOC from placing inmates in private prisons unless they're classified as medium-security or less. But officials found a loophole in the law: The definition of "private prisons" in the statute referred only to such prisons located in Colorado. With the blessing of the Colorado Legislature and the attorney general's office, the DOC decided it had a green light to ship its biggest headaches out of state.

"I don't have a problem doing this," state senator Dave Owen, a Republican from Greeley, told his colleagues. "I wish we could move them to Alaska and dig a hole."

Anthony Camera
Matthew Romero
Matthew Romero

The state's initial choice for its ad-seggers was the Guadalupe County Adult Detention Center, a county jail in south Texas. Previous attempts to warehouse Colorado inmates in Texas jails had erupted in riots and lawsuits ("This Jail for Hire," August 8, 1996), but Guadalupe's housing offer was hard to turn down: a mere $43 per inmate per day, considerably less than the $69 a day it costs the DOC to house the average medium-security inmate.

Yet the Texas deal quickly unraveled. In selling the move to the Colorado media, the DOC had emphasized the dangerous, disruptive character of the "gang bosses" who were being moved out -- men like Miguel "Spanky" Quirino, who'd killed a rival gang leader in a turf war, and Ramon "Munchie" Lopez, who'd killed a sixteen-year-old at Red Rocks. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards took a close look at their records and said no, thanks: A Texas law forbids county jails from taking inmates who have a pattern of institutional violence or escape attempts.

Curiously, jail officials in Guadalupe County tried to contest the decision by arguing that Colorado's "bad boys" weren't nearly as bad as the DOC wanted the folks back home to think. Many of the prisoners were up for parole soon, and some hadn't directly participated in riots at all.

"Through our contacts in Colorado these disturbances were explained to us as 'gang-related' in-fighting and took little or no force to quell," jail administrator Debra Jordan wrote to Terry Julian, director of Texas's jail-standards commission. "When these situations occurred, officers responded and the inmates complied immediately.... The media has turned this into a 'sensational' story and over exaggerated the danger, if any, to our facility."

In fact, while the group shipped out of state includes many bad actors, there are others whose paperwork suggests that, like Matthew Romero, they won their pariah classification primarily on the strength of their tattoos and suspected gang status rather than any violent activity.

"He got several write-ups, but not for anything violent," says Romero's mother, Paulette Tafoya. "They were saying he was in a gang. I don't know; maybe he has to be with a group to be protected, you know? I told them Matt was never gang-affiliated when he was on the streets. They were very rude to me. They just said, 'Well, he's in a gang now.' They had already made up their minds to ad-seg him. "

Some prisoners say they were ad-segged because of an altercation with another inmate -- a dispute of a personal nature that hardly rises to the level of a riot. Alfredo Garcia, for example, claims that he was minding his own business in CCA's Huerfano County Correctional Facility when he was given a new cellmate -- a man who'd gone to prison for shooting Garcia's sister and cousin. An assault charge ensued.

"He was in a minimum facility, ready to come out," says Garcia's aunt, Elsie Mecillas. "He'd been doing his time, no regressions, no setbacks. Then they put this guy in there, the last guy they should ever have put in his cell, and now he's in segregation. They set him up for failure; I really believe that."

Texas officials, though, considered the Colorado contingent to be about as innocuous as toxic waste. The DOC was forced to turn to the only other bidder for its strange cargo: CCA's nearly vacant meat locker in Mississippi.

In gasping rust-belt towns and battered farm communities, the economic choices are often limited: Die slowly, or take the industries nobody else wants. Youngstown, Burlington, Las Animas -- these are the places where the Corrections Corporation of America comes calling, offering jobs and shiny new prisons.

In the case of Tutwiler, Mississippi, pop. 1,364, CCA didn't have to do any wooing. The town fathers came courting CCA. Soybeans and cotton were no longer the providers they once were, and by the late 1990s the dominant feature of the town's main street was its boarded-up storefronts. In one of the poorest counties in the poorest state in the country, with per capita personal income of $17,185 a year, a new prison was something to be welcomed with cheers and bright banners.

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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.