Private prison operator Community Education Centers' woes have a familiar ring

This isn't exactly the best week ever for Community Education Centers, a private company that operates halfway houses, prisons and "re-entry centers" in seventeen states. On Sunday, the New York Times began running a three-part series on the company's alarming record of escapes, assaults, gang activity and drugs at its New Jersey facilities, the result of a ten-month investigation into CEC and its political ties to Governor Chris Christie. If it all sounds a little déjà vu, it may be because CEC has had some troubles at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center it runs in Colorado Springs.

Four years ago, Westword interviewed a number of officials, residents and graduates of the CMRC, an innovative but controversial effort to provide state inmates with a smoother transition to life back on the street. The staff dress like motivational coaches rather than prison guards; the "residents" (not inmates) live in spartan dorms rather than cells and engage in a lot of peer-driven confrontations about behaviors and attitudes.

Critics of the program said the talk of life changes was so much window dressing for a poorly supervised operation plagued by assaults, high turnover among staff, gangs and drug use. Our article, "Con School," found some success stories and plenty of disgruntled customers, as well as DOC inspection reports that suggested some of the classes observed were staged for the inspectors' benefit.

CEC senior vice president William Palatucci acknowledged that the Cheyenne Mountain facility had been through "some growing pains." The Times reports that Palatucci and Governor Christie are close friends, once worked at the same law firm, and may have both lobbied on behalf of CEC while at that firm.

The Times series concludes tomorrow.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Hassan Latif: Ex-con advises others how to stay out of prison."

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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