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Pepper spray and restraint chairs: "Use of force" at Colorado's supermax

The year began with Manuel Rodriguez being strapped into a restraint chair. It ended with Rodriguez back in the chair.

At Colorado's state supermax prison, inmates get into confrontations with guards -- over food, hygiene, privileges, a refusal to "cuff up" or whatever -- out of boredom, mental illness or plain orneriness. Some claim to be provoked by staff.

Whatever the reason, it's a contest the prisoner is going to lose every time.

Colorado State Penitentiary.
Colorado State Penitentiary.

Colorado Department of Corrections documents obtained by Westword reflect a year's "use of force" incidents at the Colorado State Penitenitary, where the state's most disruptive inmates are confined to their cells 23 hours a day. There were 61 such incidents reported from March 1, 2012 to March 1 of this year, ranging from situations that merely required minor physical contact, known in prisonspeak as "soft empty hand control," to standoffs resulting in cell extraction teams unleashing pepper spray or confining belligerent prisoners to restraint chairs.

Although proponents of supermax prisons claim that they act as a deterrent to violence elsewhere in the corrections systems, the facilities also become repositories of "problem" inmates, whose failure to follow the rules tends to prolong their stay in solitary confinement -- and possibly exacerbate any preexisting mental problems. (As we've previously reported, roughly a third of CSP inmates have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.) Overall, the use-of-force incident numbers have dropped dramatically at CSP since the late 1990s, when the staff was averaging ten cell extractions a month.

But troubles in supermax are often a good indicator of trouble down the road, too. Evan Ebel, the parolee believed to have killed a pizza delivery man and DOC chief Tom Clements before dying in a shootout in Texas, acquired an extensive disciplinary record at CSP and the Sterling Correctional Facility before his release earlier this year.

The 61 CSP use-of-force incidents logged for a twelve-month period, obtained through an open records request, involved a total of 41 inmates -- with just four prisoners accounting for more than a quarter of the reports. Although the DOC declined to release details of each incident, DOC regulations call for an escalating spectrum of force, depending on the level of perceived threat.

The log lists twelve instances of "emergent need entry" into cells, generally triggered by an inmate being unresponsive or refusing to obey rules (such as refusing to put hands through the food slot to be cuffed before staff entry); ten cell extractions, including five using pepper spray; 31 episodes of varying degree of force to subdue inmates, from "soft empty hand control" to "hard intermediate control;" four uses of the restraint chair; and four occasions when a SORT team was activated but no use of force was required.

Continue for more about the use of force at Colorado's supermax.

Two inmates kept the teams particuarly busy. Rodriguez, serving 35 years on drug and weapon charges, was the subject of five call-outs, including two that ended in the restraint chair. JJ Alejandro, doing twelve-to-life out of Larimer County, racked up five "emergent need entry" calls. Two other inmates show up on the list three times each; one, Floyd Martinez, was involved in three use-of-force reports in one day. Martinez and Rodriguez have both been moved to other prisons since March.

Of course, CSP inmates say there's another side to the story: if the same prisoners' names show up in many of the incidents, perhaps the same is true for the guards. One CSP resident told Westword that the same two sergeants have been involved in several of the incidents over the past six months: "What they are doing is antagonizing inmates verbally when they are escorted to and from showers, and when an inmate comments and turns [his] head to respond, these [officers] are slamming them to the floor, then saying the inmate made an aggressive act/gesture so force was needed to subdue inmate...this is chickenshit abuse."

The DOC declined to release the names of individual officers involved in the use-of-force incidents, citing privacy concerns.

Here's the complete log.

Use of Force Log

More from our Prison Life archive circa June 2012: "Update: Photos from supermax lawsuit claiming horrific abuse of mentally ill at ADX."


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