Maxed Out

On a muggy July afternoon, Matthew Romero hit the yard of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility for the first time. He was looking forward to an hour of exercise in a metal cage. After spending 37 days locked down in a two-man cell, taken out only two to three times a week for a ten-minute shower, you would be, too.

At 31, Romero has been tangled up in the justice system for almost a decade, on theft and burglary charges in Denver dating back to 1995. He received probation at first, but failed drug and alcohol tests bounced him from halfway houses to prison. Last spring he became one of 128 Colorado inmates sent to Tallahatchie, a private prison located outside of Tutwiler, Mississippi. The Colorado Department of Corrections considers these prisoners to be "special management cases" because of suspected ties to gangs involved in a wave of riots that flashed through the state's prisons last winter.

It's a label Romero disputes. He has no history of violence, he insists, no write-ups for fighting or rioting -- not until the day he stepped on the yard in Mississippi.

According to standards established by the American Correctional Association, even maximum-security inmates are supposed to have a minimum of five hours a week of recreation outside their cells. But those standards aren't always followed at private lockups such as Tallahatchie, which had kept the Colorado prisoners locked down since their arrival. Romero had waited weeks for his first hour of rec, and it quickly turned into an hour of wreck.

He saw the trouble coming. Thirty-two Colorado prisoners were placed in the brand-new recreation cages, two men to a cage. The lone guard who was supervising them soon left his post. Two inmates started shaking the doors of their pens, which were secured with chain and a lock. After a few good kicks, the locks broke.

"After that, it was like a chain reaction," Romero says. "Before you knew it, all the doors were open."

Armed with the chains, some prisoners started breaking windows, and other inmates threw things out to them from their cells. A porta-potty in the yard was set ablaze. A few rival gang members began mixing it up. He stayed in his recreation pen as long as he could, Romero says, but when he realized that no one was going to let the non-combatants back inside the building, he figured he was safer in the yard with the rest.

"The unit manager opened a door and looked out," he recalls, "but then he shut the door on me and four others."

The prison's official report on the uprising states that the inmates refused orders to return to their pens and were subdued with "chemical agents" and "specialty impact munitions." But Romero and other prisoners say the riot squad didn't show up for hours -- and when it did, the prisoners quickly submitted to plastic handcuffs and a trip back to the cell blocks.

"We were stripped naked and sprayed with gas from under the crack of the door," Romero says. "We stayed in the handcuffs for several hours and were left in the cells for three days with no mattress, no blankets, nothing but a roll of toilet paper."

Guards also subdued inmates who weren't in the yard at the time, including two who "gained control of a broom and were refusing to relinquish the broom," according to the incident report. One guard fired approximately sixty rounds of pepper balls -- small capsules containing oleo-resin capsicum, an inflammatory agent derived from cayenne peppers -- through a food slot into a cell holding two inmates; the projectiles can cause severe bruising at short distances and aren't recommended for use in confined spaces.

In all, the fracas resulted in four inmates requiring outside medical attention.

Dozens of prisoners were charged with multiple disciplinary infractions. For leaving his pen, Romero was found guilty of attempted escape and sentenced to thirty days of administrative segregation, or 23-hour-a-day lockdown -- which didn't change his situation much at all, since he and the other Colorado prisoners were already considered to be ad-seg cases.

To some officials, the busted windows and scorched toilet were ample proof of why Colorado had sent this group of troublemakers out of state. "As soon as they got out in the yard, their behavior confirmed why we had removed them from population," says DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan.

But Romero says the mini-riot that broke out that afternoon was actually a protest, however disorganized, of the miserable conditions at Tallahatchie. Opened four years ago by the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest for-profit prison operator, Tallahatchie is one of the few private lockups that will accept maximum-security or ad-seg inmates, and it's become the dumping ground for hard-to-manage prisoners from three states. The Colorado contingent had previously attempted a hunger strike to call attention to a long list of grievances with the facility, from poor food and lack of medical care to alleged brutality -- but, like most hunger strikes, it was largely ignored.

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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

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