This Jail for Hire
The Colorado Department of Corrections has spent millions of dollars in recent years to accommodate its new crop of "special needs" inmates--youthful offenders charged as adults but deemed too green to do hard time; elderly prisoners grown fragile in the joint; and the chronically mentally ill, who now have their own prison complete with a free dispensary and on-call psychotherapy.
But while the state has spent heavily to address the needs of those groups, other convicts have received less discriminating treatment. These are the prisoners with no real constituency--the "normal" general-population inmates who have proved the easiest to juggle in the balancing act prompted by overcrowding. Some have even been turned into criminal nomads, sent to do time in other states when stiffer sentences and tougher parole policies left no more room at home.
Colorado has been exporting its prisoners for nine years, longer than any other state. But none of those out-of-state placements have generated as much controversy--or as much potential risk to taxpayers--as those at the Bowie County jail in Texarkana, Texas. In that facility, Colorado inmates were awakened for exercise sessions in the middle of the night and gassed with pepper spray, conditions that last December led to a full-scale prison riot. The DOC's response: It gave inmates an upgrade to the county jail in Karnes City, a lockup financed by American Express and built specifically to woo leased prisoners.
In the fourth segment of Westword's series on the state prison system, Alan Prendergast travels to Karnes County to talk to expatriate prisoners and the enterprising former county sheriff who's made a business of housing them--and to unravel the story of what's really happening to Colorado's jailhouse gypsies.
David Crosby offers his right hand as Exhibit A. Four fingers stretch out flat and motionless, but the thumb does a Texas two-step, twitching and waggling to its own private beat.
"I got that in Bowie County," he says. "I still got tremors in my thumb from the handcuffs being so tight. It's never gone away."
Crosby's dancing thumb is a memento of his fourteen months in Texas county jails. He was one of nearly 500 Colorado state prisoners shipped to the Bowie County Correctional Facility in Texarkana in June 1995 because of overcrowding at home. Crosby arrived at the start of what was supposed to be a two-year, $14 million contract between Colorado and the county to house some of the overflow, but the contract was abruptly canceled last December after prisoners rioted on an upper tier of cells, causing an estimated $40,000 in damage.
Bowie County was no picnic, Crosby says. Like dozens of other Colorado inmates, he tells horror stories of unsanitary conditions and brutal treatment by BCCF guards, of being gassed with pepper spray and locked down without provocation, of rampant violence among unsupervised inmates.
Bowie County officials say the inmates' allegations are greatly exaggerated, but they have triggered a massive class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Colorado Department of Corrections and its Texas contractors. Last summer, after county officials defied a federal court order allowing ACLU lawyers to inspect the site, U.S. District Judge John Kane temporarily halted DOC payments to the jail. When the riot broke out four months later, Colorado officials scrambled to find other beds for their inmates.
The December 11, 1995, riot at Bowie "had been building for a long time," Crosby says. "Everybody kept waiting for Judge Kane and the ACLU to do something. But it kept going on, and the conditions were so deplorable--the bugs, the filth, guys taking a crap ten feet from where you eat, the staff attitude so mean and surly--it wasn't any one thing. I wasn't surprised to see it at all. You can't cage people up and treat them like animals and not expect them to react like animals."
Crosby and 474 other Colorado prisoners have since been transferred to the Karnes County Correctional Center in Karnes City, a south Texas hamlet of 3,000 people. Another 80 inmates have been moved to a jail in San Antonio, sixty miles to the north. The privately run Karnes jail is brand-new, and prisoners grudgingly admit it's not as bad as what they faced at Bowie. But the complaints continue: about nauseating food and cramped living conditions, about mind-numbing idleness, and about the inadequate medical care some believe contributed to the death of a 62-year-old inmate from a heart attack in June--a claim the DOC and jail officials hotly deny.
"This is a lot worse than a county jail," says Garry Izor, who's already served nineteen years in Colorado prisons on a twenty-to-life murder charge. Izor was sent down to Karnes County in February and placed in a 24-man pod smaller than most mobile homes (see sidebar, page 14). "There's an awful lot of time sitting in the pod; there isn't a heck of a lot else to do," he says. "We have no property, and the conditions are substandard."
Given society's hardening attitude toward prisoners, many people would be pleased to see felons like Izor do the hardest time that Texas can dish out. "I've had people call me and ask, 'Why can't all our inmates go to Texas first and then come back to Colorado?'" marvels Ben Griego, DOC's director of offender services. "As if Colorado's soft on inmates."
Colorado has been shipping inmates out of state to relieve overcrowding for nine years--longer, Griego says, than any other state. The prison-building boom of the past decade has failed to keep up with lengthier sentences and tougher parole requirements, leaving the DOC with roughly eight beds for every ten prisoners. In addition to the Texas contracts, the DOC currently has 250 prisoners in a private prison in Minnesota; another 300 in jails in El Paso, Park and Teller counties through contract arrangements; and 450 more backed up in other county jails around the state, waiting for a prison bed.
"Every year we've been doing this since '87, I've been told, this is it, the legislature is going to give us the money to build more beds," Griego says. "But those projections never net out to what they should be."
Griego is the DOC's point man for the Texas transfers and the principal defender of the practice. But even he concedes that shipping prisoners out of state is only a stopgap response to a festering problem. "Would we rather that everybody be in Colorado? Absolutely," he says. "We're not disputing that these are jails, not prisons. It's a tough place to put inmates."
Colorado pays Karnes County $41 per inmate per day--a relative bargain by Colorado standards, since housing an inmate in the DOC costs an average of $58 per day. "It's cheaper, but the cost savings--that's kind of hard to say, after you go into litigation, the wear and tear on people, the travel," Griego notes. "I think it kind of evens out."
In fact, the true cost of the program may be higher than anyone knows. Any reckoning of the price Colorado is paying to send prisoners to Texas must take into account the Bowie mess and its aftermath, including the ACLU lawsuit, which may be the most serious threat to the DOC's operating policies since a 1978 class-action suit by the same organization forced the department to shut down antiquated prisons and open new ones. Add to that the mounting claims for damages from inmates acting on their own--jailhouse lawyer Crosby, for instance, has suits pending in Texas and Colorado state courts on various issues, in addition to being a party to the ACLU action. "I will pursue this," he vows.
And then there's the impact the move has had on prisoners' rehabilitation efforts and their often fragile links to families and the outside world. Studies indicate that prisoners who have frequent contact with family members are less likely to commit new crimes, while doing time in isolation increases the risk of recidivism.
Sheilah Rollins, a former DOC chaplain forced out by cuts in the pastoral program last year, says she knows of prisoners being uprooted despite having terminally ill relatives in Colorado, of prisoners going through divorce because of the transfers.
"I just got off the phone with one prisoner's wife who says she can't handle it," she says. "She can't deal with the distance, the anxiety. I've seen inmates cry and plead not to go because of family problems. It didn't make any difference. It reminded me of the stories of slave families being auctioned off and separated to go who knows where. I think it's criminal."
Wives and parents of inmates say they had no prior warning before their loved ones were abruptly relocated 1,000 miles away. Sandi Izor, Garry's wife, visited her husband almost every weekend at prisons all over Colorado--but that was before the DOC sent him to Texas. Collect phone calls from the Karnes County jail are billed at a whopping $8.45 for fifteen minutes; visits involve hundreds of dollars in travel expenses.
"My doctor has gone ballistic over the stress this has put on me," says Sandi, a disabled paralegal who is recovering from triple bypass surgery. "There are a lot of guys who don't get visits and don't have any family here. Why don't they send them to Texas?"
Prisoner advocates charge that the selection process for sending prisoners out of state seems not simply random but capricious. Young and old, rapists and drunk drivers, short-term and long-term prisoners have all made the list, although few with Izor's seniority in the system. Sandi says she was told by DOC officials that Garry was chosen because he could serve as a "stabilizing influence" on other prisoners. "That's his reward for nineteen years of good behavior," she says.
Some inmates, though, say they were singled out for transfer because of a vendetta waged by DOC staff. Others saythey're being warehoused because the rehabilitation programs they need to take in prison to satisfy parole requirements are full. Others, like Jeffery Knapp, say that they're trapped in a catch-22.
Knapp, who recently turned eighteen, was the youngest prisoner among the Texas transfers. He's appealing a fourteen-year sentence for sexual assault and claims he was sent to Bowie County because he refused to enroll in the DOC's sex-offender treatment program. "To enter the program, you have to sign a full confession to the crime you're accused of," explains Knapp. "If I were to do that, I would be forced to withdraw my appeal."
Over the course of eleven months Knapp did time at three Texas jails; shipped back to Colorado in May, he says he still has nightmares about being maced and beaten in Bowie County. "I do not disagree with imprisoning those who break the law," he says, "but where does punishment end and torture begin?"
Crosby says a Karnes County staffer told him that around two-thirds of the Colorado prisoners are sex offenders, including some who are "screaming for the treatment program but can't get it because it's not offered here." Izor gives a similarly high estimate. A surprising number of the prisoners, he says, came straight from county jails or have less than three months in the DOC. "I think they cleaned the sex offenders out of the county jails," he says. "They couldn't do anything for them anyhow, so they sent them here."
But Griego says that sex offenders make up only about a third of the Texas contingent. It's DOC policy to send just about anyone, he says, except for those with a "chronic medical situation," death row inmates and those serving life without parole.
"In some cases, we're sending people who refuse to be in treatment programs," he says. "In some cases, we're sending brand-new people. We do look at medical issues, but that's not to say no one down there has a medical situation; most inmates do."
Yet all the protests about conditions and the family hardships caused by the transfers beg a larger question: Why are there any Colorado inmates in Texas at all?
Part of the answer has to do with the bizarre economics of the Texas rent-a-jail business, a cottage industry largely controlled by a few private operators who have glimpsed opportunity where others see only misery. And part of it involves DOC's passive-aggressive approach to its overcrowding problem, which consists of standing by while the prison population spreads like knapweed and then running to the legislature to demand more room to grow. Lawmakers have responded with ever-expanding appropriations: The agency has quadrupled its population in fifteen years and its budget in ten.
Think of the Colorado prisoners in Texas as pawns in a larger game, bargaining chips for the DOC in its bid to add more beds. The stakes are huge, the risks substantial, the outcome uncertain. But one thing's for sure: The unhappy exiles in Texas aren't the only ones paying for their crimes.
U.S. Highway 181 winds south of San Antonio to the Gulf of Mexico, through a series of parched, hardscrabble ranching and farming communities rich in history and little else. Sunbaked towns surface abruptly, their main streets lined with faded signs and washed-out storefronts, and then recede quickly from view.
Some of the stores look abandoned, but entrepreneurship is hardly dead in south Texas. Near the turnoff to Panna Maria, the oldest Polish colony in the United States, men hawk watermelons from the back of pick-up trucks parked in the shade of pecan trees. Billboards tout bait shops, taxidermists and meat-processing emporiums--places where you can get your deer jerked and buy ammo, homemade sausage and "Baby Beef for Your Freezer." And just a few minutes down the road is another kind of homegrown enterprise: the Karnes County Correctional Center.
Sitting on a hillside across the highway from Karnes City, at the tail end of a turnout known as Commerce Street, KCCC is the newest building in town. The gleaming razor wire and shiny metal roof are hard to miss; so is the sunrise-pink facade. Locals have dubbed the place Taco Cabana, after the popular, pink-adobe Tex-Mex fast-food chain.
KCCC is a franchise of sorts. Although it's owned by the county, it's one of three jails in Texas operated by the Bobby Ross Group, an Austin-based company that subcontracts with local officials to run jails that house out-of-state inmates. According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the Lone Star State now hosts nearly 4,500 inmates from a dozen states stretching from Massachusetts to Hawaii--nearly triple the number sent there only a year ago. Two-thirds of the thirteen contract facilities are privately run.
Private prisons are hardly a new idea in America. In the nineteenth century prisoners were often used as cheap labor by private companies, a practice that fell into disfavor by the 1930s. But in the past decade the private sector has become increasingly involved in financing, building and, in some cases, actually owning prisons for profit. Ironically, the Texas rent-a-jail phenomenon began a few years ago because of overcrowding in that state.
In the late 1980s, as Texas corrections officials began to farm out backlogged state prisoners to local jails, county officials saw their revenues swell and began to add beds and turn to private contractors to meet a seemingly endless demand. But then the state's own building spree caught up with the excess, leaving the counties with debt-ridden, oversized and largely empty jails. So the counties began to seek contracts with other states.
Jack Crump, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, says the state's jails are now operating at close to 80 percent capacity--a figure that's on the increase as Texas prisons begin to fill up again. Bringing in inmates from other states is "not a long-term thing," he says, "but it is an opportunity to help out those counties that have some excess space. And, it sounds kind of altruistic, but it's also a help to those other states that are having problems."
It's also a money-maker. In the case of Karnes County, locals went to the bond market to finance their dream of a little prison on a hill--nothing fancy, just a steady revenue stream, a few jobs to pass around, and somebody else's prisoners. Although Colorado's contract is with the county, local government retains only 25 cents per day per occupied bed (around $3,500 a month) from the $7 million annual contract. The bulk of the money goes to the bondholder, American Express; the operator, the Bobby Ross Group; and a per-head fee paid to Dominion Management, an Oklahoma-based "prison broker" that takes a cut from Bobby Ross--as much as $2.50 per inmate per day--for helping to arrange placement and transportation of prisoners.
According to Karnes County Judge Alfred Pawelek, one of the members of the local steering committee that brought the jail to town, the deal couldn't have worked out better for the county. "This is about jobs, J-O-B-S," says Pawelek. "That's the bottom line."
All but four of more than 100 jobs at KCCC have been filled by local residents. As a result, Pawelek says, the county unemployment rate has dropped from 9 percent a year ago to 6 percent today, "even though we're experiencing the worst drought we've ever had." And when the bonds are paid off in twenty years, the county will own the jail outright--without having invested one cent of taxpayers' money in the enterprise.
Such arrangements have lured dozens of hard-pressed rural counties into the prison business. But corrections professionals have raised a number of questions about the new private hoosegows, charging that the pressure to turn a buck can lead to cut-rate security measures, inadequate training of generally low-paid guards and skimping on food or medical service. Recent studies, though, suggest that private corrections operations can save money and still meet the standards of the industry, and Crump says his organization has few problems with the private jails in Texas.
"I wouldn't want to see all the system privatized, but it does have its place," he says. "Private industry can move faster and take corrective action faster than the public sector can."
"We take our job very seriously," says Bobby Ross. "We have inmates from Virginia, Hawaii, Montana. We've even had inmates from the Texas system [whose] families call us and ask how they can be transferred to one of our facilities."
Ross, a former Texas county sheriff whose drawl drips with the savvy of a 22-year career in law enforcement--"I've done this all my life," he boasts--has served as jailer, bed broker and security consultant to the Texas jail industry and its various clients. He assisted Colorado with out-of-state placements for several years before launching his own company in 1993. In addition to its Texas operations, the Bobby Ross Group owns a prison in Georgia and is aggressively bidding on private contracts in other states with the aid of former FBI director William Sessions, who's listed as a "special advisor" to the company. ("He goes with us on sales calls to potential clients, that kind of thing," Ross explains.) Each contract presents unique challenges, Ross says, such as complying with different states' corrections standards and providing special diets for Hawaiian inmates or a sweat lodge for Native American prisoners from Colorado now housed in Karnes County.
The Karnes County operation is the domain of warden Rod Ellis, a broad-shouldered, soft-spoken man who used to run private-contract prisons for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. "The biggest problem I see with inmates is that they don't want to be in prison, period," Ellis says. "But they don't want to be in Texas, either."
The Colorado prisoners are "way the heck away from home, in a different environment," Ellis notes. But he says they're not greeted rudely. "You don't have to scream and holler to get respect here. I handpicked the people who work for me, and I tell them that in order to get respect, you have to give it."
Inmates agree that the relationship with staff at KCCC is far better than it was in Bowie County. "The stuff that went on there was ludicrous," says David Crosby. "Mass [pepper-spray] gassings. Throwing our property, our legal materials around. It was maximum harassment all the time."
When prisoners first arrived at Bowie, Crosby adds, "there was forced recreation on a pod-by-pod basis. This went on around the clock. It didn't matter if it was two o'clock in the morning. When it was your pod's turn, you were forced to go. Guys who refused were dragged out."
Knapp and others echo Crosby's claim, saying that the situation quickly led to inmate revolts and heavy turnover of corrections officers. And no attempt was made to separate violent from nonviolent offenders, leading to numerous fights.
"You had guys doing life in with guys who had too many DUIs," Crosby says, shaking his head. "This kind of thing isn't done. But all our pleas went unanswered. DOC claimed we were lying, we were exaggerating. Yet inmates were going to the hospital."
A report on the Bowie County jail prepared last fall by the ACLU's prison expert, Metropolitan State College professor Paul Katsampes, found "evidence of abusive conditions," including a grimy, roach-infested kitchen, undrinkable water, substandard medical and dental care, poor ventilation, noxious odors, poorly trained staff, cells so crowded that some inmates were sleeping on the floor, excessive use of force and "chemical agents," and inadequate monitoring of the situation by DOC case managers, whom prisoners claimed were often difficult or impossible to reach.
The Katsampes report has been strongly contested by DOC and Bowie County officials; at a court hearing last spring, a representative of Bowie County claimed that the jail had encountered few problems since it got rid of the cantankerous Colorado inmates and received a shipment of fresh bodies from Arkansas.
Several of the charges in Katsampes's report, such as gripes about not receiving enough toilet paper, may seem petty. But to prisoners stacked like cordwood in stifling, 900-square-foot pods--enough space, by national standards, to house thirteen inmates, but under Texas law suitable for nearly twice that number--minor annoyances can become major eruptions. It was just such a trivial dispute--the Bowie guards' efforts to remove towels and sheets hung out to dry around bunks in the middle of the night--that triggered the December 11 riot. Crosby, who was nowhere near the riot, says he was gassed, handcuffed and beaten on the floor of his cell by Texas state corrections officers who moved in to quell the disturbance.
"That kind of thing went on all the time," Crosby says. "DOC knew all about it. And they just didn't care."
By contrast, warden Ellis boasts that he hasn't had to break out the pepper spray once since the Colorado inmates arrived in Karnes County. In May a handful of prisoners were involved in a fight in the recreation yard, which inmates refer to as "our mini-riot." But Ellis characterizes it as a brief fracas among rival black and Hispanic prisoners, scarcely worth mentioning.
"It was a temper tantrum more than anything else," he says. "They got mad and threw some stuff around. It wasn't directed at my officers, by any means."
Yet many of the complaints prisoners raised at Bowie are echoed at Karnes: not enough jobs or programs, too much idleness, predators and weaker inmates all lumped together within the same pod. Ellis says more than three-fourths of the inmates work, and some take GED, anger-management or drug-abuse classes as well. Prisoners say that many of the jobs consist of tutoring other prisoners for three hours or less a day and that the jail is short on textbooks and accredited teachers for the GED program. Much of their time, they say, is either spent sardined in the pods or in the blazing heat of the bare-bones recreation yard, which has been free of free weights since the mini-riot.
Ellis says the complainers simply aren't taking advantage of what the jail has to offer. Some job opportunities involve working outside the walls on city maintenance crews, he says, a program he expects to expand as the jail receives more minimum-security inmates. "This is not a 23-hour-lockdown place," he says. "If someone's spending a lot of time in their pod, that's their choice. A lot of these guys are not outdoor people."
They're not keen on the indoors, either. Garry Izor says the air-conditioning in his pod was on the fritz for several weeks, raising temperatures and tempers. "Imagine swimming through air," Izor says. "You just sit around and sweat." (Ellis has logs of climate readings taken by guards that indicate the temperature in Izor's pod never exceeded 81 degrees.)
Inmates also fret that the lack of rehab programs may lengthen the time they have to serve. Mike Durham was shipped off to Texas the day after he arrived at Canon City on an arson charge. He'd volunteered for every program DOC offered him, including a sex-offender treatment program officials wanted him to take because of a previous conviction, but it didn't matter. Now he's having only seven days of "earned time" taken off his sentence every month instead of the customary ten--a situation that will add months to his time in the system.
"They're telling me I have to take their sex-offender program before I get my three days, but it's not offered here," he says. "It's definitely affecting my deal, even though I'm doing everything I'm supposed to be doing."
Other grievances center on food and--yes--toilet paper. The food complaints resemble the punchline of an old Woody Allen joke: "It's terrible--and such small portions, too." Colorado's contract requires that its prisoners be fed a minimum of 3,300 calories a day, but prisoners say the jail is meeting that provision with a diet rich in salt, starch and fat.
"Turkey all the time," reports Crosby. "Turkey hot dogs. Sliced turkey. Ground turkey. Turkey ham. Turkey sausage. And lots of grits. They turkey us to death and skimp on everything. Maybe once a week you get an orange. We've had apples twice, bananas maybe three or four times in the seven months we've been here."
Ellis considers Crosby's gripe, and others like it, to be the minority opinion. "Seventy-five, 80 percent of the inmates love the food," he insists. "They'll always tell you they'd like more. But when they leave, the clothes they came in with are always a bit tight. I eat here, right off the line--but not three meals a day, because I'd just swell up."
The warden points out that a dietitian from the DOC has visited the jail twice and that "a case manager from Colorado is here all the time." But that hasn't stopped inmates from groaning over gastrointestinal problems and the jail's policy of issuing one roll of toilet paper a week to each inmate. Ellis says his staff used to give out two or three rolls at a time but cut back for security reasons.
"Good God, we had guys with twelve or fifteen rolls under their bunk," he recalls. "And toilet paper is something you can make things out of. They'll take it apart, braid things. Not to mention stopping up the sewer. Now they give us their empty roll and they can get another. But that's unusual. I never use more than a roll a week unless I'm a sick boy."
Past sewer problems at KCCC may have something to do with the decision to begin rationing toilet paper. During a May inspection, ACLU lawyers discovered that the jail was using prisoners to clear excrement and other blockages that accumulated every few days in a poorly designed holding tank in the main sewer line. Or, as the attorneys later described it, prisoners were ordered to "wade through any overflowing sewage...[and] manually scrape off the human waste into a wheelbarrow, to then go into the tank with shovels and scoop up the human waste, putting that sewage into wheelbarrows. These wheelbarrows are then taken over a small hill on KCCC's property and dumped in open piles." Deeming sewage-surfing to be cruel and unusual punishment, the ACLU obtained an injunction to prohibit the jail from employing inmates in such a manner.
By far the single greatest area of contention at the jail, though, concerns the quality and timeliness of medical care. Inmates say they often have to wait three to five weeks to see a doctor, on matters ranging from painful infections and back spasms to needed medications. (In Colorado, prisoners receive regular physical exams and have their teeth cleaned every six months.) And they claim some of their buddies are in such poor shape they should never have been sent to Texas--like Frank Mares.
Mares, a 62-year-old inmate serving time for DUI convictions, died of a heart attack in his Karnes County cell in June. He had a history of heart problems and had reportedly gone to the infirmary twice earlier on the day of his fatal attack, only to be told he would be put on the doctor's list. Two of Mares's cellmates have claimed KCCC staff were slow to respond to their requests for help when he collapsed that evening--one says it took forty minutes for an ambulance to arrive--but Ellis says he's satisfied with his staff's handling of the situation.
"I saw Frank the day before [he died] and asked how he was doing," Ellis recalls. "He said, 'Pretty good, boss.' From the time he passed out in his house till he was pronounced dead was under ten minutes."
The president of the Bobby Ross Group also bristles at the suggestion that his people could have prevented Mares's death. "The reports we got back from the autopsy, his arteries were all clogged up," Ross says. "There was a nurse on duty, CPR was given, and the ambulance was there in something like four minutes. We certainly had an interest in trying to save this man's life, but some disgruntled inmate--and there are plenty of them down there--would just dial up somebody and say we killed this guy."
The DOC's Griego says the jail staff recently agreed to revise its procedure to expedite dental requests but that medical care for the prisoners appears to be more than adequate. "This just isn't an issue," he insists. "But there are inmates who've said they're going to do whatever they can, through the press or whatever, to point out how terrible it is down there because, whether it is or not, their whole motive is get back to Colorado. I'd probably be doing the same thing if I was a thousand miles from my family."
Two weeks ago a 25-year-old Colorado prisoner collapsed and died in the recreation yard of San Antonio's Bexar County Adult Detention Center--but DOC officials say that death, too, was from natural causes.
In fact, the department is so pleased with the way things have worked out in Texas that it recently renewed its contract with Karnes County for another year. Bobby Ross says his company is planning a number of changes to try to make things easier for the inmates, including the installation of video phones that would allow inmates to see their loved ones in Colorado and make a "personal" appearance before Colorado parole-hearing officers.
A similar arrangement at the company's Newton County facility allows Virginia inmates to visit with family members who gather at a church back home. "That seems to help a whole lot, being able to have a color picture of the inmate," Ross says.
But not even the latest technology can placate the jail's critics. "The staff, for the most part, try to do the best job they can with what they have," says David Crosby. "But this is still a county jail. We're state prisoners doing long-term incarceration. It's just not suitable."
Garry Izor wonders if the public grasps the difference between jails and prisons and the kind of time one is expected to do in each--or if, for that matter, anyone outside the system gives a damn about prisoners' gripes.
"It's odd to me that they can so easily change my life with a single pen stroke," he says. "You have a life in the penitentiary, you know--the best you can, under the circumstances--and they take that away. I don't understand it. We haven't done anything to come down here. They just didn't know how bad it would be, just like the people in Bowie didn't know they were going to be maced and beaten. It's not something they put in their brochures."
He adds, "Not every single part of a person is horrible. I have known some decent human beings in the penitentiary, people I'd actually call friends. But we have no due-process rights anymore. None. Imagine the omnipotence that brings--the power of treating thinking creatures like they were pieces of meat.
"These people are human meat brokers. Doesn't that shock anyone anymore?"
Working in corrections has been likened to sitting in a bathtub with no control over the faucet or the drain. Prison officials have little say about how many inmates are sent to them or how long they stay. Lawmakers and judges control the sentencing, and in Colorado, the parole board has enormous discretion regarding who gets out and when.
Still, the DOC's critics contend that the department should be doing more to manage the size of its prison population, rather than relying on new prisons and out-of-state transfers as a solution. As in many states, prison overcrowding has become a chronic problem in Colorado, a crisis that's been around long enough for the department to have gotten a handle on the forces that are driving it.
"Let's start with what's not driving it: crime," says Roger Lauen, a Seattle criminologist who worked in corrections in Colorado for nearly twenty years. "From 1978 until now, the crime rate has gone up and down in small measures, but if you look at an eighteen-year period, it looks more like a flat line than anything else."
Lauen was the state's first director of community corrections and a member of the Colorado Criminal Justice Commission until he resigned in 1994 "in strong protest" over the legislature's increasingly rigid lock-'em-up policies. He argues that the incarceration boom has increased the number of people behind bars fourfold--from 2,600 in 1979 to more than 10,000 today, a number that is projected to exceed 14,000 by 2001--with little or no effect on the rate of violent crime in the state.
"That's very disturbing," Lauen says. "It means we can quadruple it again in the next fifteen years; we'll have enough money invested in prisons by then to [be forced to] shut down the University of Colorado at Boulder. But we still won't have any impact on violent crime."
Of course, locking up violent offenders does have a deterrent effect on the number of crimes they, at least, will commit. But less than a third of the DOC's prisoners are serving time for violent crimes; the rest tend to be low-level drug offenders, burglars, petty thieves and the like. Although some have previous violent convictions on their records, the increasing rate at which people are going to prison for nonviolent crimes is one of the principal factors behind the growth in prison beds.
DOC officials point out that it's the legislature's job to decide what type of criminal goes to prison, not theirs. Since 1979, the Colorado General Assembly has enacted wave after wave of sentencing "reform"; the net effect has been to widen the range of imprisonable felonies and to make the state's sentencing structure more complex and inflexible than ever. In 1985 the length of sentences was doubled across the board; since that time, legislators have passed various measures designed to reduce the impact of the doubled sentences--lowering sentencing ranges and increasing the amount of "earned time" prisoners are awarded to speed their release date--while creating more severe penalties for sex crimes, crimes against the elderly or handicapped, and other special categories.
Add to that, says Ben Griego, the "big inconsistency" in the way different prosecutors and judges handle the same types of offenses. "This state now has seventeen different types of sentences," says Griego. "Five or six different types of life sentences. It gets real complicated when you have inmates going in and out, committing crimes under different sentence structures. It's a mess."
Lauen, though, believes the DOC can do more to alleviate that mess--for example, by taking a more "proactive" stance with "young eager-beaver state legislators" to keep bad crime bills from becoming law. "The DOC and the parole board and the judges are guilty by their nonparticipation," he says. "They should be saying, 'Look, dummies, we have enough lightweights in prison. Let's get the riffraff out of there so we have space for the violent offenders.'
"They don't do that. The people who know the least about the system are constructing the bills. Most of them are written by the district attorneys' council."
That leaves the other release valve: parole. But parole numbers have fluctuated wildly in recent years. Critics of the system say the process has become hopelessly politicized and that the DOC hasn't developed sufficient community placement options for low-level offenders.
"The parole board is in an impossible political situation," says Denver criminal attorney Phil Cherner. "There's no reward for letting inmates out, and people are all over them if a parolee commits a new crime. How can they possibly win?"
Currently, there are 4,036 prisoners in Colorado--roughly one out of three--who have reached their parole eligibility date but have been refused parole. Many are sex offenders or other high-risk inmates who may apply for parole for years without success, but others are simply stalled in the system, either because they haven't been able to obtain an acceptable halfway-house placement or because a parole-board member has decided they're not ready yet.
"The board can't deal with the numbers," says Bob Sylvester, president of Dismas House, a nonprofit refuge in Denver for parolees who can't find other placement. "Guys are getting set back three years at a time [until their next parole hearing], and I don't know if that's based on their case or because the board just doesn't want to see them next year because they're so overloaded."
"There are literally thousands of people in the Colorado system who have done their time," Lauen insists. "I'd bet my boots that at least 60 percent, by any standardized level of risk, could be released today. But because they got in somebody's face at DOC, or for some political reason, they're still in. The board always plays it safe."
A 1994 analysis by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice indicates that the state could free up 928 beds by releasing all of its low- and medium-risk offenders at their first parole hearing--but 210 of those would be expected to return to the system within one year on new crimes. Reform advocates like Lauen and Sylvester say that the DOC isn't putting its resources into addressing that kind of recidivism; the department is pouring money into prison expansion rather than better pre-release programs and other measures that help prepare inmates to get out and stay out.
Sylvester says Dismas House recently accepted a parolee released directly from the Colorado State Penitentiary, the DOC's 23-hour-lockdown, maximum-security prison. "I won't take any more from there," he vows. "I tried my damnedest to get this kid moved to pre-release first, but they refused to move him. When he came to us, he hadn't seen the sun in two and a half years. It took two and a half weeks before they arrested him and took him back."
In fact, the parole process is expected to add to the overcrowding problem over the next few years. In 1993 the legislature decided that all prisoners should serve a mandatory period of parole of up to five years--a widening net that also increases the number of low-level parole violators sent back to prison. Current projections state that the parole population will double over the next six years and that the number of parole violators in prison will rise by more than 150 percent, from 818 to 2,080.
With no relief in sight from sentencing reform or parole, the out-of-state transfers of Colorado prisoners will probably continue for at least another year. But DOC director Ari Zavaras is confident that the department's continuing expansion program will eventually catch up with the crunch, despite lawsuits and construction delays.
"The legislature has funded a number of our requests that in the not-too-distant future will allow us to get all our inmates back here," Zavaras declares.
Zavaras declines to be more specific, saying he doesn't want to raise false expectations. Yet it seems clear that the department is counting on Colorado's own private prisons, fittingly enough, to take up the slack. A referendum that would have allowed the state to enter into long-term contracts with private turnkeys was defeated last fall, but that hasn't discouraged plans for a 300-bed pre-release center in Weld County and a 752-bed minimum-security prison in Huerfano County--both privately run. A third private prison, operating just outside the town of Las Animas in Bent County, has announced plans to expand.
The Weld County site is still being challenged by local residents, but bulldozers have already broken ground on the southern Colorado prison, located in an industrial park outside Walsenburg. The $36 million project will be entirely financed and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, the largest of all private prison companies. Founded in 1983 by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors, Tennessee-based CCA now operates more than two dozen prisons in six states, the United Kingdom and Australia.
In mid-July the Department of Corrections began the first of what is expected to be a quarterly "rotation" of some of the prisoners sent to Texas. Over a weekend, 35 prisoners were removed from the Karnes County jail and bused to the San Antonio airport. They stood on the tarmac while dozens of other prisoners from Colorado, shackled and under the watchful eye of guards armed with machine guns, deplaned and took their first gulp of hot, humid south Texas air. The prisoners from Karnes County then flew Western Pacific to Colorado Springs, while 106 of the glum new arrivals headed for the Taco Cabana.
According to the rumor mill, more transfers are expected soon. But men who have already spent more than fourteen months in Texas aren't counting on a miraculous rescue by DOC--or by the ACLU, which has been preparing a report by prison expert Katsampes on the Karnes facility for months.
"The guys they took back were up for parole or had court dates or medical problems," says David Crosby. "Nobody knows how long the rest of us have to be here."
Garry Izor was one of the fortunate, returned as a hardship case because of his wife's illness. "Emotionally, it's cost Sandi a lot more than it cost me," he says. "I never thought I'd say I was pleased to be back in a Colorado penitentiary, but I am."
Sandi says she isn't going to let the issue of out-of-state transfers drop just because her husband is back. "I'm going to be at the legislature this year sobbing buckets," she says, "with my bag of pills and my phone bills. What they did to us is unconscionable. I don't see why they can't take volunteers and prisoners who have relatives in Texas instead of those who have family here."
But for every prisoner reunited with family members by the move, there were others who had to take their place. As before, the selection process seemed entirely random. One of the prisoners flown down to Texas last month was William "Eddie" Neusteter, of the Denver department-store clan, serving eight years for robbery and violation of probation; another was Sean Lankford, serving sixty years for sexual assault and burglary.
Jane Neusteter, Eddie's mother, says she's primarily concerned about the lack of meaningful programs and services--not only for her son, who held up a Denver convenience store by sticking an unloaded gun in a clerk's face, but for the entire contingent of Colorado prisoners in Texas.
"It's a personal heartbreak, but it affects a lot of other people, too--the family members of 500 people," she says. "My son was doing very well, taking computer classes in prison, and now he has no services. I don't understand why they're moving people out of programs. If this is going to be a long-term situation, isn't there some way to support the efforts of those prisoners who are trying to change their lives?"
Lankford's mother, Kathy DeAlba, lost not only her son but her fiance, Doug Boehmer, who was serving time with Lankford at Ordway before being shipped to Karnes City. DeAlba says Boehmer was supposed to be eligible for a work-release program this fall. His detour to Texas will probably change that.
"I don't see that this is productive at all," DeAlba says. "We've got people in prison who don't belong there, and all we're doing is making their time longer. It's the taxpayers who are suffering as well as the families.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.