Supermax showdown: Don't confuse us with facts

At first glance, the idea of tapping into the badly stretched state budget for a few million to open one wing of a new supermax prison doesn't seem all that loony.

After all, the Colorado Department of Corrections spent more than $200 million to build the new state pen, known in sequelspeak as CSP 2, before running out of money to operate it. And three recent inmate homicides in the system have been blamed on the DOC's "shortage" of administrative segregation beds, leaving ultraviolent maniacs and stone-cold killers to mingle with more cultured, genteel, peace-loving felons.

So putting more inmates into 23-hours-a-day lockdown should straighten things out, right?

Ah, if only the science of corrections was that simple. When lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee sit down on Friday to consider the DOC's request for another $10.8 million to open part of CSP 2, they're going to find themselves in the crossfire of a complex argument about recidivism, mental illness and the staggering cost of locking down an ever-growing percentage of the prison population.

The basic pitch for moving ahead with the new supermax is that, thanks to budget cuts and increasing inmate violence, the system is becoming more dangerous for staff and inmates alike. At a press conference at the Capitol last week, corrections officers complained of low morale and faulty radios and grimly described the deteriorating situation at the Limon Correctional Facility. There, officer Eric Autobee was slain in 2002 and Pam Kahanic narrowly survived a throat-slashing by an inmate who took her hostage in 2007.

The officers were protesting a recent Republican attempt at across-the-board cuts to the DOC budget that would have slashed another 209 DOC employees, on top of the ninety lost in the past fiscal year. But the event was also a backhanded endorsement of CSP 2, which state representative Buffie McFadyen described as a "relief valve."

McFadyen conceded that the DOC is short on mental health services and that many of the current ad-seg inmates -- almost 40 percent, actually -- are classified as mentally ill. But, she said, "I can't deal with mental health issues of inmates if I don't have safety first."

Fair enough. But the coalition of groups rallying against CSP 2 -- including the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and the Colorado chapter of the ACLU -- claim that, contrary to the DOC's assertions, supermax prisons don't make the rest of the system (or the public, for that matter) any safer. And they have some interesting data on their side.

At present Colorado classifies about five percent of its prisoners as "ad-seg." That's more than double the average rate in other states. If you factor in the CSP 2 beds and don't count the well-behaved population shipped off to private prisons, it comes out to four times as many.

Does Colorado actually have more hardcase management problems per capita than other states? The DOC says it does. In fact, it claims to have 9,500 gang members behind bars, nearly half the total prison population. That's an absurdly high number, charges Christie Donner, director of the CCJRC, which has battled the state over its supermax policies for years.

"They've done no due diligence to support this request at all," says Donner. "What they give us are bullet points with no substantiation."

Donner's own research shows no correlation between adding supermax beds and the assault rate in the general prison population. Indeed, DOC's official funding request makes several statements that are misleading or demonstrably false about the number of murders that have occurred in the system in recent years and the impact of the existing supermax on inmate violence. For example, DOC claims it's had one inmate homicide per year for the past ten years except for 2004. But the agency's own reports show two in 2001, two in 2005, three in 2006 -- and a dramatic rise in the suicide rate since the decline in mental health programs and rise in the use of solitary confinement for disruptive inmates.

Donner believes that the three recent homicides -- including the beating death of a child molester at Territorial -- may have more to do with "bad management and mental health issues" than a lack of ad-seg beds. If anything, she argues, seeking funding for CSP 2 while slashing mental health treatment and programs that have a proven track record in reducing recidivism makes the rest of the system even more unstable.

She understands the officers' concerns about low morale and short staffing, she adds. "It's a dangerous job, and they should be well-equipped and adequately staffed. But this request will cut programs in other prisons, so what are they actually doing to make things safer?"

Supermaxes may seem like a relief valve, but they're also a cash drain -- expensive to operate and costly in terms of the high failure rates of prisoners who parole directly from lockdown, with little preparation for the street. Donner contends that the DOC can free up room in the current CSP by providing mental health treatment in a less-restrictive prison to the mentally ill prisoners now housed there. "Colorado needs to fund what works in corrections," she says. "We already have enough ad-seg beds."

Whether lawmakers are swayed by that argument or not, the bills are already piling up at CSP 2, which was built through a TABOR-busting financing scheme using certificates of participation. That should prompt some tough decisions about dollars -- and sense -- when the opposing forces head for a showdown over the prison budget Friday.

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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