MSNBC's prison-reality show and the death of a pedophile

Lockup, MSNBC's voyeuristic peek at life inside America's nastiest prisons, launched its new season Saturday (*corrected) night with some cell floodings and tough talk by thick-necked inmates at Colorado's own Limon Correctional Facility.

This season (titled "Extended Stay: Colorado") will focus on Limon, a simmering high-security hoosegow that houses close to a thousand violent prisoners and has a troubled history of assaults and lockdowns.

Like its prototype, Cops, the MSNBC show isn't exactly an unbiased source of information about the criminals it finds so fascinating. The producers are dependent on corrections officials for access, and that clearly influences what they can and can't show about what really goes on behind bars.

The prisoners seem to enjoy cutting up for the cameras, which makes them that much easier to demonize. But then again, some of them don't need much demonizing -- a murder last week at another Colorado prison had strong overtones of the theme of this week's episode, demonstrating that some of the popular stereotypes about prison life are all too true.

A central character in this week's plot line, Timothy Schreiber, happens to have a history of sexual assaults on children. Rather than keep this information to himself, Schreiber did everything he could to antagonize other inmates and staff, all in a brazen effort to keep himself out of general population at Limon. (For clips of the show, go here.) Child molesters don't fare well on the yard with everyone else, as Lockup viewers know well.

Schreiber's plan almost backfired -- he screwed up enough ways to face possible habitual charges, which could have landed him in Limon for life. But apparently the prison system was as sick of him as I was by the end of the episode and ended up cutting him loose. Schreiber was released in September and returned to Jefferson County, prompting a community meeting to inform his neighbors -- who'll likely be even more disturbed than before when they see this episode.

Not so fortunate was Ronald Ferguson, a fifty-year-old habitual offender doing 25 years for kidnapping and sexual assault on a child. Last week, far from MSNBC's cameras, Ferguson was beaten to death with a dumbbell at the Territorial Correctional Facility. Corrections officials say his alleged assailant is Kevin Lust, also 50, an inmate serving a life sentence for the 1993 murders of his second wife and former fiancee.

The prison spin machine was in evidence in the brief stories about Ferguson's fate. Officials lamented the fact that they didn't have enough "close" security beds to keep the most violent inmates from mingling with medium-security inmates, a dilemma exacerbated by not having the money to open the new supermax (see "For sale: supermax prison, like new").

The articles didn't explain why Lust, who committed his crimes in Oregon, was serving his life sentence in Colorado. A DOC spokeswoman declined to comment to Westword on the issue, but evidently we swapped one of our nothing-to-lose lifers for one of theirs, under an interstate compact that allows such trades.

Other sources indicate that Ferguson, like Schreiber, had begged staff not to move him into general population; that he'd been paying protection to other prisoners; that his pleas about being in danger were ignored. Online kibitzers have suggested that Lust should receive an extra cookie or possibly a medal -- the usual taxpayer glee when one of the damned offs another, when someone who murdered innocence is himself murdered. But who knows why Ferguson was really killed, other than his killer?

The crime probably says more about the state prison system's inability to protect the criminals in its custody than about any kind of karmic payback. And it would seem to strengthen the case for other molesters like Schreiber to be as obnoxious as possible, and game the system any way they can, rather than trust it to do what it's supposed to do.