Life in the Florence Prison: It's a Riot

Note to self: Avoid extended stays in federal high-security penitentiaries, especially on weekends. Most prison riots tend to happen on weekends, when staffing is bare-bones and the week's grievances have heated to a boil. Last Sunday's melee at the U.S. Penitentiary Florence, in which guards fired on inmates and killed two, is a case in point. A nonfatal fracas last year involving inmate-on-officer assaults, during which the staff almost lost control of the entire facility, also came on the weekend.

Senator Ken Salazar has renewed calls for the Bureau of Prisons to add personnel at the Florence complex. State representative Buffie McFadyen isn't so sure it's just a staffing issue, though she has railed against the BOP's penny-pinching approach to its high-security prisons time and again.

Just adding more bodies probably won't solve the problem at USP Florence, a deeply dysfunctional prison with a violent history. It's a gang-ridden hellhole in a system that won't even acknowledge that it has a gang problem (the BOP prefers the term "security threat groups" and insists the STGs are on the run). For detailed accounts of past mismanagement, see our Crime and Punishment archives, particularly "Marked For Death" and "Cowboy Justice". The place is emblematic of system-wide overcrowding, bungling and gang wars; the real shocker isn't last Sunday's violence, but that there haven't been more eruptions like this one.

On a related note, a jury in Lincoln County just handed 18th Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers another defeat in her effort to revive the death penalty in Colorado. As reported here, a judge removed Chambers' office from the capital prosecution of inmate Alejandro Perez in the murder of another prisoner at Limon, citing ethical violations. And now Perez's co-defendant, David Bueno, has been sentenced to life for his role in the homicide; prosecutors had sought the death penalty in that case, too. But violence within prison walls is such a murky, messy affair that even the most gruesome killings, such as the Rudy Sablan disembowelment case at USP Florence that 's currently being tried in federal court, rarely result in the death penalty. Maybe juries have figured out what Chambers hasn't: that spending the rest of your life inside one of our higher institutions of punishment can be a fate worse than death. –- Alan Prendergast