Maxed Out

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

Warden Cooke has assured locals that the flimsy locks on the recreation pens were replaced with sterner stuff. Cameras have been installed in the yard, and a second guard now supervises the area when inmates are exercising. But in recent months, there have been at least two other security breaches at Tallahatchie, giving prisoners who have little to do besides mouth off an opportunity to get at each other.

In October, staff discovered that prisoners in one pod had stuffed eighteen of twenty cell-door latches with toilet paper. In many cases, the maneuver prevented the mechanism from locking, allowing the inmates to slip out on the tier and thump or be thumped.

Last month, a phone installer accidentally hit the "group release" button in a control center, opening all the cell doors in a pod housing rival gang members. More than two dozen inmates began fighting. Several were injured. One was stabbed multiple times before guards sent the warriors scurrying with blasts of pepper spray.

Anthony Camera
Matthew Romero
Matthew Romero

The riots at Crowley and Tallahatchie last July had little effect on CCA's bottom line. The company reported that third-quarter revenues rose 11 percent to $295 million, thanks to higher occupancy levels and new management contracts.

These days, Tallahatchie is three-fourths full, with 680 Hawaiians, 121 Colorado prisoners and a shipment of 128 maximum-security inmates from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman who arrived this fall. Strapped for funds, Mississippi has turned over more than 2,000 prisoners to CCA's care, including inmates at two state prisons managed by the company. The Magnolia State has become almost as important a client as Colorado, which now has more than 2,700 inmates in CCA prisons.

State officials say the only alternative to using private lockups is an expensive one: building more prisons. But studies prepared by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and other opponents of privatization suggest that the apparent savings involved in paying a contractor fifty bucks per miscreant per day are misleading. The rate doesn't include transportation, case-management oversight, non-routine medical care, the cost of monitoring the prisons, or the state's burden of defending lawsuits; once these costs are factored in, the private route doesn't seem like much of a bargain. One CCJRC analysis found that the indirect costs boosted the per diem rate to close to $64 -- close to the average cost of housing an inmate in a state prison.

Of course, some of the hidden costs of going private can't be calculated at all. Prisoners who have strong family connections on the outside are less likely to return to prison than those who don't, and shipping inmates out of state severely strains those ties. Relatives of Colorado's Tallahatchie prisoners say they can't afford to visit the inmates with any regularity -- if at all. Some can barely afford the $13.50 collect phone calls they receive every week or two.

"I can take a call every two or three weeks," says Paulette Tafoya, Romero's mother. "I talked to him on Thanksgiving, and he was really down. He said, 'Mom, I don't know how much more of this I can take. I feel like I'm going to lose it.' I worry about him night and day."

"We could barely see him here, let alone over there," says Elsie Mecillas, Alfredo Garcia's aunt, who'd been preparing to drive from Denver to Walsenburg to visit her nephew when she found out he'd been moved to Burlington, then Mississippi.

Even family members who manage to make the trip wonder what good it does. Susan, the wife of a Tallahatchie inmate who asked that her real name not be used, traveled to Tutwiler in September. Her husband was brought into a visiting room in shackles, and she talked to him from the other side of a glass screen. She had a very different impression of the prison than the Colorado monitors, who've described it as clean and orderly.

"The facility was disgusting," she says. "The room smelled like urine. There were cockroaches crawling across the glass. It was a good-ol'-boy kind of place."

Susan and her husband have been together for seven years. For most of that time, he's been in prison on an assault charge. His release date is only a year away, and until the past few months, Susan thought the marriage would survive his incarceration. But then he got ad-segged after a melee in the chow hall at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility last March and was on his way to Texas, then Mississippi.

"To be honest with you, I'm ready to file for divorce," she says. "This move has separated us completely. It's not a relationship anymore. It's just a hardship."

She doesn't believe her husband is in a gang and doesn't know what he did to earn a trip to Mississippi. Nor does she know when he'll be back; prison officials say they have an eighteen-month program for prisoners to emerge from ad-seg, and her husband is up to "Level Six," but it all seems nebulous and poorly defined. (Nineteen Tallahatchie inmates were moved back to Colorado in October and replaced by another nineteen prisoners from this state.) She knows that the DOC has to take measures to maintain order, but the for-profit aspect angers her. On the roads outside of Tutwiler, she saw crude signs -- like the ones farmers use to advertise fresh produce for sale -- announcing jobs for corrections officers and nurses at the prison.

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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.