Coming Up Short

President Dubya wants to send more troops to Iraq, but he doesn't seem to be paying much attention to federal employees who say we need more boots on the ground right here --— specifically, more correctional officers in federal prisons, where the level of assaults is rising as staffing rosters keep getting thinned.

The situation is particularly dramatic at the four-prison federal complex in Florence, Colorado, home of the nation's supermax, also known as ADX, and some of the most notorious terrorists and gang leaders in the country. Pressure from union leaders, Colorado's senators and state representative Buffie McFadyen (shown above), whose district includes Florence and the state prisons in Canon City, finally compelled the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to beef up security at ADX in recent months -- but McFadyen complains that it's being done by reallocating staff from elsewhere in the complex, leaving other prisons shorthanded and vulnerable.

This afternoon McFadyen called a press conference at the State Capitol to allow union leaders to vent on the issue. Ken Shatto, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local for U.S. Penitentiary Florence, ADX's high-security neighbor, revealed that there have been three serious incidents involving inmate-on-staff tussles in the past ten days at the USP --— and that on January 9 "we were close to losing the institution" to packs of defiant prisoners roaming different housing units.

"Our inmate population is getting more bold," Shatto said. "They're not responding to our commands. This is the worst I've seen it."

The disturbance began in the evening, when prison staffing is at its weakest — less than forty staff supervising a thousand prisoners. Inmates began fighting among themselves in the yard. A guard tower fired four "dispersal rounds," but the melee quickly spread to different cellblocks, among inmates armed with boom handles, shanks and chairs. By the time it was over 35 minutes later, seven officers had been injured — mostly with strains and back injuries from running around trying to quell the fights. None were hospitalized. Dozens of additional staffers had to be called from ADX and the medium-security Federal Correctional Institute, leaving both those prisons short-staffed, too.

The USP has been locked down since the incident. BOP officials have sought to downplay the matter as commonplace, but Shatto says one tower officer has had to fire dispersal rounds fifty times in the past year — and live rounds seven times. That's an entirely fresh level of anxiety in a penitentiary that's never been all that safe; for a fuller history of the USP's snitch games, indictments of officers accused of beating up inmates, and other carnage, see our Crime and Punishment archives, particularly "Marked for Death" and "Cowboy Justice."

With staff levels sagging while thousands of more inmates are coming into the prison every year, McFadyen insists that homeland security should begin at home. "We can no longer let this problem be out of sight, out of mind," she said.—Alan Prendergast

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun