When all hell broke loose last year at the Crowley County Correctional Facility, a private prison on Colorado's eastern plains, Vance Adams stayed very, very quiet. From his cell door, Adams could see prisoners armed with weight bars running in and out of his unit, smashing windows, busting up plumbing, setting fires and raiding offices and vending machines.
"They looked like they were having a good time," Adams says. "But I wasn't."
After a confrontation in the yard on July 20, 2004, the understaffed guards evacuated quickly, leaving the inmates free to rampage for hours, causing millions of dollars' worth of damage. Adams, serving a five-year sentence on drug and escape charges, soaked some towels to try to block smoke and tear gas from his cell.
Prison and state Special Operations Response Teams (SORT) arrived in the unit around midnight and ordered everyone to put their hands on their heads and crawl backward, face down. When Adams tried to sign the orders to his cellmate, who is deaf, the officers became more belligerent, he says. "I screamed back at them,'My roommate is deaf!'" he recalls. "They calmed down a little bit, but I guess I wasn't crawling fast enough."
Adams says he was tightly cuffed, dragged by his ankles through the water flooding the unit, hauled outside and thrown on the grass of the prison ball field, where he remained until mid-morning. Older prisoners around him were passing out; others cried out for medical attention after being sprayed with birdshot, pepper gas or rubber bullets.
"When the SORT officers cuffed me, they broke my wrist," reads the affidavit of inmate Terry Borrowdale. "They left me cuffed with a fractured wrist for four to five hours, until I was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Pueblo.... When I told the SORT officers that I am almost sixty years old and had no part in the riot, one officer answered, 'This is what you all deserve for what you have done.'"
Bad as the riot was, many prisoners say they suffered greater injuries from the aftermath of the disturbance, as officers from the Colorado Department of Corrections and Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison operator, regained control. A group of more than eighty inmates is filing a lawsuit against CCA this week, claiming the company let conditions deteriorate before the riot, then brutalized men who didn't participate in the uprising. Prisoners claim they were assaulted by officers, shot (with live ammo, in at least one case) while fleeing burning buildings or trying to surrender, denied medical treatment, forced to strip in front of female staff and denied showers for up to a week after the incident.
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a Washington-based public-interest group, has joined Boulder attorney Bill Trine in representing the inmates. The attorneys have obtained thousands of pages of the state's investigation of the riot and are seeking access to videotapes made by staff. "There's absolutely no question about what happened during the riot," Trine says, "and there's a lot pointing the finger at CCA. They had to get the riot under control, but what they did afterward was to punish everybody, whether they were involved in the riot or not."
The Colorado DOC's after-action report on the riot blasted CCA management for ignoring state inspectors' recommendations before the riot, for inadequate staff training and for pitiful emergency-response procedures. The report noted that SORT teams fired hundreds of rounds of buckshot, birdshot and rubber bullets -- as well as slugs, smoke grenades, "stingballs" and pepper-spray canisters -- but concluded that "reasonable force was used" to regain control of the prison.
But since that report was released, the DOC has also come under fire from state auditors for failing to adequately monitor the private prison. As first reported in Westword last year, visits by DOC monitors were often shorter than required and suffered from a lack of followup on critical issues such as poor food, skimpy portions, chronic staff turnover and abysmal inmate morale ("Going Off," December 23, 2004). Investigative files obtained by the prisoners' attorneys indicate that DOC and CCA staff received more warnings from inmates of an upcoming disturbance than previously acknowledged. One counselor told investigators that several staff members had turned in reports on the matter but "the administration seemed more concerned about who the [source] was than about the information on a potential riot."
At the time of the riot, Crowley held 1,122 inmates, including some from Washington and Wyoming as well as Colorado, but had only 47 employees on duty. Although the riot was triggered by an alleged misuse of force on a Washington inmate, investigators found that inmates had a wide array of grievances, from the disparity in treatment of inmates from different states to rotten food. Investigators sampled the food in the dining hall and "found it to be of very poor quality and distasteful."
After the riot, prisoners say, they were kicked and struck by guards while cuffed, dragged face-down through vomit or feces-tainted water, and threatened with more violence. An inmate named Arnold Wyrick claims he was denied access to a bathroom, had to defecate in his pants, and was forced to wear the soiled clothing for eight hours while guards called him "Mr. Shitty Pants" and asked, "Does the little baby need a diaper?"
The investigative files also indicate that some prisoners performed heroically during the riot. Inmates in one honor pod repelled rioters who tried to enter their house and manned a bucket brigade to put out fires. Afterward, they were shoved into overcrowded cells with no mattresses or shipped off to more restrictive prisons or county jails.
The prison was locked down for nearly a month after the riot. Recently paroled inmates say that conditions at Crowley are no better than before, and possibly worse, with limited access to recreation and to the DOC's monitors. "I rarely saw a monitor around," says Adams, who's now in a Denver halfway house. "They'd have us cleaning the place a day before any inspection."
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Inmate Oscar Barron, who left Crowley last spring and is now on parole on a robbery charge, says staff training is still a sore point. "They've got guys right out of high school and old ladies," he says. "Come on. Are they going to protect you if something happens?"
The DOC did not respond to questions about its officers' alleged mistreatment of handcuffed inmates.
CCA spokesman Steve Owen hadn't seen a copy of the complaint and declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit. "CCA will aggressively defend the complaint," he says. "Beyond that, we believe the most appropriate venue to respond is through proper court filings rather than by way of public comment."
Adele Kimmel, staff attorney for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, says her group became involved in the case because of a lack of "significant reform" in the way CCA manages its four prisons in southeastern Colorado. "We think the lawsuit is the best mechanism for holding CCA accountable and preventing future riots," she says.