Dirty prison tricks: Kansas adopts Colorado's asbestos removal program for inmates

A recent story in the Topeka Capital-Journal about a 2005 renovation at a Kansas women's prison has a familiar ring to it.

Inmates and corrections employees have long claimed that they were forced to remove asbestos flooring without adequate training or equipment, and state officials have failed to produce records to back up claims that all the abatement efforts of the toxic materials at the prison were performed by professionals.

It sounds very close to what happened after the Colorado Department of Corrections took over the aging Fort Lyon campus from the Veterans Administration in 2001 and turned it into a prison for elderly and infirm inmates.

The DOC moved prisoners into the asbestos-rich old buildings long before abatement was completed, and over the years startling stories have emerged of prisoners being sent into crawlspaces, ordered to cut pipes or rip up tiles and being exposed to asbestos in areas later sealed off, as recounted in my 2007 feature "Poisoned Pen."

Although DOC officials concede that some inmates may have been subject to inadvertent exposures, they have claimed that no inmates were actually involved in asbestos removal. But several prisoners insist they were ordered to do renovation work without protective gear in areas that clearly contained asbestos, and state health inspectors found evidence that backed up some of their claims.

The Kansas debacle is now the subject of an EPA investigation. Because asbestos-related diseases can take decades to develop, we may never know the extent of the contamination of Colorado prisoners or employees at Fort Lyon. But officials insist that the asbestos problems there, while more costly than they anticipated, are now a thing of the past.

Or the future, depending on how you look at it.

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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