How secure is a prison with locks that don't work? Only three and a half years after Colorado's Limon prison opened, taxpayers are going to have to shell out $155,000 to replace its 712 cell-door locks. No matter, apparently, that the locks at the Limon Correctional Facility carried a warranty. Colorado prison officials contend that the original lockmaker, Adtec Detention Systems of San Antonio, Texas, has not made good on its promises or lived up to its motto, "Built to last a life sentence."

Officials say that every one of the company's locks, particularly the Adtec 1000, a two-inch solenoid lock used in the cell doors, posed problems at Limon almost from the moment the prison opened.

"The worst part," says corrections official Bill Tripp, "was the inmates found out very quickly how to pick that lock."

Tripp and Limon warden Bob Furlong say that despite the glitches, the prison has not experienced any serious security problems due to the lock. After the 1993 murder of Limon inmate Robert Gardner III, however, investigators noted that locks on Gardner's cell and a suspect's cell had been tampered with ("Killing Time," June 1).

The state is now accepting delivery on the first batch of replacement locks from R.R. Brink Locking Systems in Shorewood, Illinois. It will take months for the installation by prison officials to be completed. Tripp says the state simply ran out of other options. "How long," he asks, "are you going to ride a dead horse?"

Officials in at least four other states say they are asking themselves the same question after experiencing similar problems with Adtec locks. Carlos Pino, director of support services for the Sandoval County (New Mexico) Jail, says he's been working with Adtec for the past five years to correct jamming problems with the locks at his facility. Georgia corrections officials say they might have to come up with $120,000 to replace the locks at the Telfair prison, and Morgan County, Kentucky, officials estimate that it could cost almost $200,000 to replace the Adtec locks in their jail.

Adtec president Ed McGee refuses comment, referring all questions to his attorneys, who were out of town and unavailable for comment.

Tripp says Adtec officials' position in the matter was made clear to the state in a spring 1992 letter. "They said that lock was never designed for a medium- or close-security prison," says Tripp, "and that we weren't using it the way it was designed."

Colorado's dealings with Adtec began about five years ago, when plans were being drawn up to build Limon, designed to be the state's newest medium-security prison. The G.E. Johnson company out of Colorado Springs was chosen as general contractor. Norment Industries, an Alabama company that was eventually picked to provide doors and other hardware, submitted a bid using Adtec locks.

Tripp says that Adtec was not originally on a list of companies that meet state specifications, but that it was considered for the job after "putting on a dog-and-pony show" touting its products. The state's architect and prison officials then gave the okay to go forward with Adtec.

Complications continued to mount even after prison officials learned how to make Adtec's cell-door locks more tamper-resistant. Tripp and Furlong say the locks jammed easily, broke down and wore out rapidly. The slightest pressure on a door would keep the lock from working, they say. The fact that after its opening Limon became a "close-security" prison (one step higher than medium-security) made it even more imperative that the locks work properly.

Tripp says Limon required one full-time prison locksmith, and sometimes two, to keep up with the repairs on the cell doors.

The Adtec locks came with a two-year warranty and, says Tripp, "they could make a case that they busted their hump for us. They replaced almost every lock in the place." And when the problems with the cell-door locks didn't go away, the company's technicians developed new locks. "They sent out ten or fifteen of the new locks," says Tripp. "They said, `This will do the trick.' But we had ten trouble calls on those locks the first ten days they were in."

According to Tripp, Adtec then decided it had fulfilled its obligation in good faith and declined to provide any more help. Legal action against Adtec might not be a viable option, says Tripp, because the legal fees alone could run $100,000, "and a warranty is only a piece of paper." The state did recently file a claim with the contractor's bonding company, but Tripp isn't confident about recovering money from that source, either. The only thing left to do was to dig deeper into the corrections department's pocket and find another company to provide the necessary locks.

Limon is the only state prison in Colorado with Adtec locks, says Tripp. And at this point, it looks as though it will remain that way. Tripp says Adtec did not submit a bid when the state was planning its newest prison, the maximum-security Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City, and officials did not make a point of seeking out a bid from the company.

"We'd never use Adtec again," Tripp says. "They can get down on their knees and beg, and we'd never use them again.


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