Locked and Loaded

Stabbings and beatings are common. Drugs are plentiful -- although ingesting them sometimes has unforeseen results. A restraint chair comes in handy, as does the occasional warning shot from Tower III. And whatever you do, don't mess with inmate Ramirez.

Those are some of the impressions of the Limon Correctional Facility gleaned from internal documents recently obtained by Westword. The Colorado Department of Corrections reports on the troubled state prison summarize months of disruptions, gang conflicts, assaults on staff and other violent incidents that occurred prior to the murder of a corrections officer last fall.

In October, an inmate armed with a soup ladle fatally bludgeoned Eric Autobee, a 23-year-old supervisor in the prison kitchen. This was the first inmate killing of a DOC employee in more than seventy years, propelling the story into the headlines -- just nine months after a prisoner sexually assaulting a female employee put the facility in the news. But routine violence at Limon has gone largely unreported, even though some of the 336 employees, as well as other observers, consider the 953-bed facility to be the most dysfunctional -- and dangerous -- prison in the state system.

"We've been getting more complaints about Limon than any other prison," says Dianne Tramutola-Lawson, president of the Colorado chapter of CURE, a national organization of prison activists and inmates' families. "It's always been a tough place because of the number of inmates there doing life without parole or long sentences, but now it's become a powderkeg."

Limon is a "close-security" prison, a notch below maximum-security facilities such as the Colorado State Penitentiary, but its potential for violence is actually much greater. CSP prisoners are locked down 23 hours a day, but Limon inmates, a high percentage of whom are "problem" inmates transferred from other prisons, have considerable contact with each other and staff.

Employee sources say Limon is plagued by a range of management issues, including staff cuts and racial tensions, as well as simmering conflicts between guards and prisoners that prompted a three-day inmate hunger strike last summer. In a three-page memo submitted to Limon warden Gary Watkins, organizers of the hunger strike raised concerns about inadequate medical care, unresponsive case managers and "nuisance rules which appear to be designed to harrass [sic]." But the overriding complaint was that some abusive guards were sparking or escalating otherwise manageable conflicts.

"Bad attitudes on both sides have gotten us here," the strikers wrote. "We are aware of the 'pathologically or psychotically challenged' here that sometimes give us a bad name, just as you are aware that some officers don't quite measure up as well as others.... The resulting antagonism in the context of the current dilemma was virtually inevitable."

Despite that forewarning, DOC officials deny that staff shortages or training issues at the prison had anything to do with Autobee's murder. The following is an edited chronology of Limon lockdowns and incident reports in the twelve months leading up to that October confrontation. In many instances, the document contains allegations not yet proven in a disciplinary hearing or court proceeding, and some names have been deleted.

October 15, 2001: "Inmate MacNeil became combative, throwing classroom chairs at staff. Six staff sustained superficial lacerations and contusions to their hands."

October 16, 2001: "Two inmates (Depina and Wolfe) were fighting in the dining hall. Two staff received minor injuries."

October 30, 2001: "Inmate A. was found in his cell with a drug (heroin) overdose and transported to Lincoln Community Hospital."

November 17, 2001: "Inmate B. experienced a drug overdose, transported to Ward 18."

November 28, 2001: "Inmate Ronas was having a seizure. Life saving techniques were performed to no avail and the inmate expired."

December 17, 2001: "Two inmates (C. and Failing) were found unconscious due to drug overdose. Inmate Failing could not be revived and expired."

January 18, 2002: "A staff member was sexually assaulted by an inmate."

February 13, 2002: "Two inmates were fighting, Marcos and Coto, that resulted in one inmate being transported to DGH."

February 22, 2002: "Inmate Romero refused to move, head-butting and kicking staff. The restraint chair was used to move the inmate."

March 17, 2002: "Inmate Galindo was stabbed several times from an ice-pick-type weapon to the abdominal area while in the recreation yard."

March 27, 2002: "Inmates Bennett and Dean were fighting in the dining hall. Staff attempts to break up the fight failed and OC [pepper spray] was used."

April 2, 2002: "Overdose. Syringe, needle marks."

April 6, 2002: "Inmate Pacheco was found on the floor with inmate Ramirez standing over him, kicking him. Investigation revealed that Pacheco was ordered to 'hit' Ramirez by the Surenos STG [security threat group] leader. Ramirez found out about the hit and assaulted Pacheco. The first 'hit man' assigned was Hidalgo-Fernandez. Ramirez also assaulted Hidalgo-Fernandez, who sustained several head, face and body injuries."

April 16, 2002: "A dummy was found in an inmate's cell. A mobilization was called and all inmates were accounted for."

April 29, 2002: "Inmate Salazar was stabbed (no transport)."

May 4, 2002: "Two overdoses. Hospital treatment."

June 1, 2002: "Minor stabbing."

June 4, 2002: "Inmate D. began striking his head on the wall. He was placed in the restraint chair for his safety. He was released and put on suicide watch."

June 12, 2002: "A fight broke out in the recreation yard. There were 135 inmates in the yard at the time. Twelve inmates were involved, mostly from the Surenos-13 security threat group. An inmate sustained moderate injuries from blows with horseshoes and weights used as weapons."

June 23, 2002: "Two inmates (Brown and Graves) were fighting in the dining hall. The inmates were restrained, and the officer received injuries to his elbow and knee."

June 30, 2002: "Overdose. Balloons stuck in throat. Surgically removed."

July1-3, 2002: "The inmates protested with a mass hunger strike. The strike ended without any major incidents."

July 9, 2002: "Three inmates were in an altercation that resulted in one inmate being stabbed. No staff were injured."

July 23, 2002: "During the gang pull two inmates (George and Nguyen) began fighting in the courtyard. They refused orders to stop and Tower III fired a warning shot."

August 1, 2002: "Balloon. Dry cell." [Translation: an inmate swallowed a drug balloon and was kept in a cell with no toilet until the evidence materialized.]

August 24, 2002: "An officer was randomly pat searching inmates in the courtyard when inmate Martinez became angry and punched the officer. Another officer responded, wrestling the inmate to the ground. A third officer assisted and the inmate was cuffed. A warning shot was fired from Tower III. Two staff suffered minor injuries."

September 9, 2002: "A cell extraction team had to remove inmate E. from his cell in order for mental health to evaluate him due to his bizarre behavior over the past 48 hours."

September 27, 2002: "Two incidents, stabbing and assault."

October 4, 2002: "Inmate Benavidas was found in his cell severely beaten (attempted murder). He was transported to Plains Medical Center and flown to Denver via Flight for Life. He remains in a coma."

October 7, 2002: "Inmate Fullmer was stabbed over his eye with a pencil and transported to Denver."

October 15, 2002: "Inmate Montour assaulted Eric Autobee, Correctional Support Supervisor, Food Service. Eric was sent to Swedish Medical Center by Flight for Life, where he later expired."

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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