On the eve of a 25-week trial that promised to focus on claims of poor training and worse management, the nation's largest private prison company has reached a settlement with nearly 200 former inmates over a 2004 riot at the Crowley County Correctional Facility in southeastern Colorado. The uprising, which plaintiffs' attorney Bill Trine says was telegraphed in advance and could have been prevented, left many noncombatants terrorized first by the rioters and then by corrections staff retaking the prison.
Trine announced this morning the $600,000 settlement his 193 clients have reached with Corrections Corporation of America, which operates more than sixty private lockups in sixteen states, including four in Colorado. Depending on their injuries, individual plaintiffs could receive anywhere from $1,200 to $17,000. That's "pennies on the dollar" for a billion-dollar company like CCA, plaintiff Vance Adams noted. Yet the settlement is an unusual one in that CCA was unable to keep it secret; while the company has been sued frequently, it rarely settles a case without insisting on a confidentiality agreement as a condition for payment.
After eight years of litigation involving hundreds of depositions and motions and hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, Trine wasted no time calling a press conference to detail the settlement and denounce what he calls "the evils inherent in the private prison system" -- many of which were on display in abundance before, during and immediately after the Crowley riot.
As extensively reported in our previous coverage, Crowley was an incendiary device in search of a match in the summer of 2004 -- a poorly supervised operation with skimpy meals, well-documented security flaws and rising tension among Colorado prisoners and new arrivals shipped in from Washington state. During the discovery process, Trine learned that many officers and inmates had expressed concerns about the deteriorating situation, including a frantic staff meeting held on July 20, just hours before the place went off, during which several COs questioned the wisdom or letting all the prisoners on the yard at once when so many were threatening a disturbance that very night.
Despite the numerous warnings, only a skeleton crew was on hand that evening as a disgruntled core of Washington inmates began helping themselves to weight equipment, smashing things and going after reputed snitches. Staff quickly abandoned the place, leaving some of their colleagues behind. "They didn't have enough trained staff to deal with a disturbance, let alone a riot," Trine says.
Continue for more about the Crowley inmates' settlement. By the time SORT teams took control hours later, at least two inmates had been seriously assaulted and two units of the prison damaged by fire and flood. "I saw a bunch of people who were angry and taking it out on inanimate objects," former inmate William Morris recalls. "They were destroying CCA from the ground up. Unfortunately, some of them also started hurting other people."
Although numerous inmates hadn't participated in the mayhem -- some had stayed in their pods, or locked down in the kitchen and other areas, even protecting a female librarian who'd been abandoned in the guards' flight -- all 1,100 of them were treated the same by the response teams.
Adams, who was trying to assist a deaf cellmate, was forced to lie face down in sewage, dragged ankles-first from his cell, and dumped outside all night in tightly ratcheted plastic cuffs. Men had to relieve themselves in their pants while being taunted and gassed by responders, then took showers while being video-recorded by female staff.
"It was very humiliating," Adams says. "I would take zero money if CCA was just forced to give up its prisons to the state to operate."
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Trine says some inmates were kept in isolation for as long as six months. Many received little or no medical treatment, and one seriously injured prisoner was quickly paroled to avoid further medical expense. In the years of legal wrangling that followed, the attorney learned that CCA had prepared its own internal report on the riot but failed to produce it, claiming it was lost. He also came across entirely different reports of the incident filed by the same employee, suggesting that the company kept one version for public consumption and another for internal use.
"I wanted a trial," Trine insists. "I felt confident that a jury would do the right thing." But a prospect of a half-year trial with hundreds of witnesses ultimately proved too daunting to both sides.
Adams is now a service manager at a tire store. Before he completed his journey through the prison system, though, he ended up back at Crowley briefly in 2008, long after several new security measures were implemented at the facility. "I don't think much has changed," he says. "They still have the same number of officers per unit -- two."
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Crowley prison riot: New details of unheeded warnings emerge in epic lawsuit."