Colorado Supermax Will Build Rec Yards to Settle Prisoners' Lawsuit

The Colorado Department of Corrections has committed to spending more than $4.7 million to build outdoor recreation areas at the state's highest-security prison. The move is in response to a class-action lawsuit brought by prisoners in lockdown at the Colorado State Penitentiary and a federal judge's ruling that conditions at CSP —  which has provided its inmates no access to outdoor exercise or direct sunlight since it was opened in 1993 — do not meet constitutional requirements. 

CSP was designed as a supermax facility, intended to house the system's most violent and disruptive prisoners in 23-hour-a-day lockdown. For years, its highest-custody residents typically left their cells only for showers, medical exams or exercise in an odd-shaped, closet-like room on each tier, equipped with a chin-up bar; small holes allow some fresh air from outside to reach the room. But that arrangement was challenged in court by inmate Troy Anderson, who'd spent more than a decade at CSP.

In 2012, U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson ruled that the conditions of solitary confinement at CSP amounted to "a paradigm of inhumane treatment." Calling Colorado corrections policies "out of step with the rest of the nation" — even the notorious federal supermax in Florence allows its inmates outdoor recreation in individual cages — Jackson declared that prison officials must provide Anderson with "meaningful exposure" to natural light and air.

The DOC subsequently shipped Anderson to the Sterling Correctional Facility. (He's now back at CSP — and still very much in litigation with the agency over mental health treatment issues, which were central to his original complaint.) But Jackson's ruling also opened the door to a class-action lawsuit on behalf of other CSP prisoners facing the same restrictions, filed by student attorneys at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC). 

The proposed settlement — which has received preliminary court approval but will not be formalized for several more months — calls for the DOC to construct three outdoor recreation yards. Each one would be 2,400 square feet and contain basketball courts, exercise pads, walking tracks and benches with sun cover. The yards could be used  by up to sixteen inmates at a time. A major hurdle in settlement discussions had to do with how to accommodate the highest-security inmates, who don't recreate well with others. The DOC had hoped to provide them access to individual "modules" in an interior courtyard, but the size of those pens — about ten feet by ten feet, surrounded by high walls — failed to meet minimum industry standards. 

"They claimed they were not able to provide outdoor rec for inmates at the maximum custody level, who have to be kept separate from each other," says CREEC attorney Amy Robertson. "The solution they had was this cage — but they didn't like it when we used that word."

According to Robertson, the agreement now calls for the highest-security inmates to be moved to Sterling, which already has rec facilities for inmates who must be kept separate from others. The decision to remove some of the system's most isolated inmates from supermax is unusual but not unprecedented; over the past few years, the DOC has taken several steps to limit the use of solitary confinement — a trend that began under DOC director Tom Clements and has since been pursued by his successor, Rick Raemisch, after Clements was murdered in 2013 by Evan Ebel, a parole absconder who'd spent years in solitary confinement. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast