Off Limits

Prison nation
Last week, while most state lawmakers were wrestling with 57 varieties of gun legislation, Dorothy Rupert and Penfield Tate tried to focus public attention on the lawbreakers (armed or not) already getting their room and board at state expense. Their press conference to push Senate Bill 104, which would put the brakes on prison construction for three years while a task force prepares a long-overdue evaluation of Colorado's runaway corrections spending, attracted little media heat -- short items in the dailies, a snippet on one TV station -- but provided plenty of pungent declarations of war.

"We're almost brain-dead," state senator Rupert concluded, citing a 1,200 percent increase in state prison spending (and a 400 percent increase in prisoners) since 1984. Despite Department of Corrections double-talk about public safety, Rupert argued that many nonviolent offenders could be placed in community corrections rather than occupying prison beds at an average cost to the taxpayer of $25,000 each.

"We're going to run out of money and we're going to run out of dirt," added state representative Tate, who'd rather see the soaring prison construction budget diverted to education.

Not mentioned by the speakers was one of the primary forces fueling the prison-building frenzy: the parole logjam. Colorado has one of the lowest parole rates in the country. The stinginess only got worse in the latter days of Roy Romer's reign ("Please Release Me," January 9, 1997) and has become downright draconian now that Bill Owens appointees control the parole board. The state paroled an average of 112 prisoners a month in 1997-98; now there are only 48 parolees a month, despite a 20 percent surge in prison population. Are today's applicants more violent than those of three years ago, or is the Owens board just stir-crazy? The trickle of releases may be even smaller than indicated; an unknown number of those listed as having been granted parole are actually on "tabled status," meaning they're still serving time until some future release date -- kind of like being told you're "already a winner," but the check never arrives.

Senate Bill 104 is scheduled for a public hearing this week. If it's successful, maybe prison lawmakers can call for a moratorium not just on prison building but on sex harassment within the DOC. The state's already doled out $1,037,500 in settlement costs for two harassment lawsuits involving ex-warden Joe Paolino ("Jokin' Joe Has Left and Gone Away," January 6), with two more federal cases awaiting trial, but the expense doesn't end there. According to figures supplied to Westword by state number-crunchers, the litigation has also cost the Colorado Attorney General's Office $121,000 in staff time and another $46,200 in payments to private attorneys representing Paolino and other defendants in the four cases. That kind of cash would buy a lot of khaki jumpsuits.

More harassment complaints against the DOC are in the pipeline, including one filed last week in U.S. District Court by former employee Margo Vaughan that hints at a novel theory as to why the department is so gung-ho on farming out its excess inmates to private prisons. Vaughan, who worked at DOC headquarters, claims she was retaliated against because she complained that prison chief Ari Zavaras and other officials had stock in the Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison giant, "in their wives' names or in [the] names of associates or friends, in violation of state regulations."

Zavaras, who now heads the Department of Public Safety, says that the allegation is "completely and absolutely untrue. I never owned CCA stock, and no one in my family has."

But Vaughan's attorneys, Michael O'Malley and Ron Podboy, say that retaliation for raising issues of possible misconduct or for supporting other employees' harassment complaints is common within the DOC -- and they have a growing list of clients making similar claims. "We expect to churn up a pretty warm compost heap here," says Podboy, a former Denver prosecutor.

Warm compost heaps aside, it's no secret that the DOC is already investing heavily in CCA, which operates three of the four private, for-profit prisons in the state. Current prison czar John Suthers wants to up the ante; he recently unveiled plans to increase the number of Colorado inmates in private hoosegows to 30 percent (it's now at 20 percent). Never mind the history of problems with dope smuggling, lockdowns and alleged sexual liaisons between inmates and guards at CCA's understaffed Kit Carson Correctional Facility outside Burlington ("McPrison," September 30, 1999); after a lengthy investigation that resulted in the dismissal of the prison's warden, DOC officials insist the place is operating much more smoothly.

If that's the case, somebody forgot to tell Michael Henry Schrecongost. Last month the 46-year-old Kit Carson inmate was found dead in his cell of an apparent heroin overdose.

If you have a tip, call Jonathan Shikes at 303-293-3555, send a fax to 303-296-5416, or e-mail [email protected].

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