Inmates who joined in a hunger strike at the Colorado State Penitentiary last month were hoping their protest would attract a media feeding frenzy -- and put pressure on officials to modify harsh conditions at the state's supermax prison.
Instead, they just got hungry.
The official story of the strike is that it was a complete dud. Participation dropped off quickly, Colorado Department of Corrections officials say, and the protest accomplished nothing, since prison administrators weren't about to negotiate policy matters with a bunch of disgruntled inmates.
But the protesters say that isn't how it went down. DOC administrators misled the public about the number of prisoners involved, they claim, and went to great lengths to muzzle the effort -- including intercepting inmate mail, denying medical attention and threatening disciplinary action in an effort to break the strike. And since DOC policy bans media interviews with high-security inmates, the prisoners had little chance to tell their side of the story.
"They lied so blatantly about what was really going on," wrote Troy Anderson, one of the organizers of the strike, in a letter to Westword. "They think they are immune to any accountability. If through this action we can expose any part of their deceit, it'll be worth it."
The strike began on January 15, when dozens of prisoners at CSP -- some estimates put the number as high as 140, or close to 20 percent of the prison's inmates -- refused meals. It ended eleven days later, when Anderson, the last man fasting, decided to have a bite of breakfast.
"They said that as soon as I passed out, they'd call an ambulance, do the hospital thing and charge me," says Anderson, who lost eighteen pounds and is now down to 117. "I figured since I wasn't leaving anyone hanging, I might as well hang it up."
Opened in 1993, CSP was designed to house the state's most combative, escape-prone or just plain dangerous inmates in total isolation. Prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells and are shackled when escorted to showers, phone calls or family visits. They're supposed to earn their way to greater privileges through cognitive-skills classes and avoiding conflicts with staff. DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan says the behavior-modification program has been a deterrent to violence across the system. "We've had 3,700 inmates go through this program, and only 10 percent have come back to CSP," she says.
But over the years, the amount of time prisoners are locked down in CSP has nearly doubled: The average length of stay is now 31 months. Critics of the supermax approach say it often intensifies existing behavior problems -- at least 12 percent of CSP residents have been diagnosed as mentally ill -- and leads to more violence when long-term solitary prisoners are released ("Maxed Out," December 23, 2004). Morgan was unable to provide figures on how many CSP graduates return to other prisons.
Anderson describes himself as "the poster child for why prisons like CSP don't work." He spent six years in administrative segregation -- four of them at CSP -- during a prior prison stint in the 1990s, then was paroled right to the street. He soon got into two shootouts with police in Adams County. He's been in CSP for nearly five years this time around, with numerous write-ups for assaults on staff and an extensive mental-health history. Yet he's also been incident-free for years at a time and says he's been unable to progress out of the supermax because of conflicts with medical staff over his medication.
"I believe this facility played a huge part in me committing all the violence I did," Anderson says. "I'm not saying I don't belong in prison. I do. But this place breeds hate. It's a trip. We sit in these cells and fantasize about killing cops, rats and child molesters."
The hunger strike was supposed to highlight a long list of grievances prisoners have with conditions inside CSP. Some of the complaints, such as the excessive markups on TV sets sold to inmates or the ban on sexually explicit magazines, weren't the kind of thing that would generate an outpouring of sympathy from the public. But other items addressed more serious allegations, such as inadequate ventilation and little access to books. And at the core of the protest was what prisoners consider the greatest injustice of the place: the lack of a coherent process for getting out of CSP.
In theory, inmates who complete programs and don't commit more disciplinary infractions are eligible for transfer to less austere prisons; in reality, they are often denied transfer because of suspected gang ties or reasons officials decline to explain.
"To date I've been ad-segged [in solitary] for four years, four months," reports inmate Shawn Shields. "I've completed every class foisted upon me. I've been write-up-free for one year, seven months, 23 days. I held a porter job for a full year. And I've been denied [transfer] five times now. No reason given, other than Œcontinue behavioral review.'"
Tim Tinsley, a CSP resident who's done more than nine years in administrative segregation, adds that prisoners are often held back because of "negative chrons" -- unflattering written observations by staff of inmate behavior that the inmate has no opportunity to dispute or correct. "Their policies make it difficult to progress," he says. "I stay slammed down here because there is no due process."
Officials may have underestimated how quickly word of the strike spread through lockdown, but they moved swiftly to squelch the protest. One internal memo obtained by Westword indicates that inmate mail to reporters was intercepted by prison staff, on the grounds that "such correspondence may present a threat to the safety and security of the public, staff, offenders and agency/facility." Yet one justification for the DOC's ban on media interviews with high-security inmates is that the prisoners are free to write letters to communicate their views.
Prisoners were also told that their refusal to eat could result in charges of "supporting and inciting a facility disturbance" -- and that their punishment would probably include even more time spent in CSP. Under DOC rules, Morgan says, any "organization of a combined effort" by prisoners, even a non-violent hunger strike, is prohibited.
Four days after the strike began, the Pueblo Chieftain quoted Morgan as saying that only eight prisoners were still fasting. That figure is disputed by strike leaders and food-service workers, who claim that at least forty inmates were still participating. Morgan acknowledges that dozens of other prisoners were still refusing "some" meals at that point, but she also suggests that an unknown number were squirreling away canteen items and sneaking meals. "They were still eating their snacks," she says.
But cell shakedowns failed to produce a hoard of chips and candy bars. Anderson, who claims to have survived on water and vitamins, has a receipt for one shakedown four days into the strike that shows no snacks were found in his cell. "They lied to the newspapers," he insists. "They videotaped all meal refusals, so it's all documented."
Anderson also challenges officials' assertions that the strikers, with the exception of those who declined treatment, were seen daily by medical staff. He was visited regularly only toward the end of the strike, he says; one nurse told him that "there were just too many people to see. That's a hell of a reason to refuse treatment."
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As the strike entered its second week, the number of protesters dropped sharply. One prisoner became dizzy and collapsed in his cell, suffering a head injury. Feeling shaky and light-headed himself, vomiting water and suffering nosebleeds, Anderson finally decided to pack it in.
To date, no prisoner has been charged with a disciplinary infraction for the strike, but it produced no changes in policy, either.
"Real change has to come from out there," Anderson says. "There are thirty to forty of us in here who will never be allowed to leave. They give us no hope. It gets harder and harder to find excuses not to act up. What's worse are all the people who will parole from here. They have a huge backlog of people who should have left years ago -- or shouldn't be here at all."
for related stories visit our "Crime and Punishment" archive.