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The prison has struggled with other contraband issues, too. According to DOC monitoring reports, homemade hooch was a persistent problem until officials finally got better control of the theft of sugar, yeast and fruit from the kitchen stores. (Estep says the homebrew problem is "pretty isolated" now.) Inmates have taken advantage of security flaws to sneak into offices to use phones and, in one celebrated instance, raided computer equipment for a motor to use in a makeshift tattoo gun. Flirtations and worse with female staff have been another distraction.
"At least three women got fired for having sexual relations with inmates while I was there," Valle-Terstege says. "Two others were investigated for sex with inmates, and another for having sex with a staff member. You had women coming to work in skintight clothing — and these guys haven't been with women for years. They'd deliberately provoke us because they liked the attention. Some liked to get guys in trouble."
That may have been the case last year, but it's a different environment now, insists current resident Erickson. "When I was in Buena Vista, I heard that CMRC was full of dope and female guards were having sex," he says. "I haven't seen any drugs — none. I haven't seen any female staff doing anything wrong. It's all a bunch of BS."
Estep says he's fired "one or two" female employees for improper relationships with inmates. The effect of these transgressions, and others, on the overall quality of the re-entry program is difficult to gauge. DOC monitors have expressed a variety of concerns about the size of the classes, the training of the staffers conducting them and even the legitimacy of what is transpiring. One scathing report, written before Estep's arrival, indicates that CMRC administrators were actually faking classes during official tours.
"I was told by staff that a member of the administration had come into their office and offered all inmates in the area a candy bar if they would 'go to computer class and pretend they were working,'" the state inspector wrote. "Inmates gave a consistent account, stating that they had been given merits, candy and tokens to attend classes during tours to promote the appearance of full classes."
The inspector also learned that the "library" shown to visitors was a sham. "On tour days, someone is posted in a room with a bunch of books and a sign-in log, and they pretend that a library is available to inmates," she wrote. "I asked to see the library and was shown the property room and told it used to be there."
The reality of CMRC, the inspector continued, was much different: "An inmate may begin a class, decide he doesn't want to participate and simply leave the class without any expectation of consequences.... The staff acknowledged that inmates have been provided with certificates of completion when they didn't actually attend the class.... Case managers and treatment staff reported they didn't have any way of knowing where individual offenders were during the day, or how they were progressing in the program.... Many of the case managers reported they felt ill-equipped to teach the programs they were required to deliver."
Palatucci denies any attempt to deceive visitors. "I don't find anyone at CEC who has knowledge of that report, so we can't comment," he says. "In general, the claims [made in] the report must be very dated."
Staff and many current residents insist the situation is quite different now. The prison has a real library, with hundreds of books. Class attendance is mandatory, and each resident's day is highly structured. Two full-time teachers help residents obtain their GEDs and fulfill other academic requirements, and others assist with computer training and "lifestyle change." Some classes are "resident-driven," they say, then quickly add that inmates don't actually teach other inmates; they facilitate. (It's DOC policy that inmates can't have authority over other inmates.) But some graduates insist the program still lacks substance.
"The classes were asinine," says Valle-Terstege. "It was the same class over and over. Cognitive restructuring, anger management, criminal lifestyle theory — it was all the same stuff. There was one case manager who would walk in and the guys in the back would start screaming obscenities. He would not speak or make eye contact with anyone until the noise stopped. And it didn't. We'd be in there for forty minutes, and nothing was happening. He would flush beet red and begin to sweat. His was the only class I took where the test was closed-book, and guess what? Everybody cheated."
Bullard says class attendance depends strongly on whether staff assigned to a particular unit regard it as a priority. He had been assigned to work with goats at another prison and was eager to get more practical training — "I knew I wasn't going to get a job as a goat farmer," he says — but found his opportunities at CMRC were limited.
"They preach re-entry, but they don't teach you anything for re-entry," he says. "I am one of the few who actually showed up for class. They've got inmates teaching the curriculum, and it's the same from the day you get there to when you leave. Guys would come to class, sign in and then leave."