| News |

The battle for fresh air and sunlight at Colorado's supermax

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

In the summer of 2012 a federal judge declared that the conditions of solitary confinement at the Colorado State Penitentiary constitute "a paradigm of inhumane treatment" -- and ordered that a mentally ill inmate who'd been housed there for years was entitled to at least three hours a week of natural light, fresh air and outdoor exercise. Sixteen months later, not much has changed at CSP -- which is why student lawyers at the University of Denver have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state supermax, claiming violations of the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson originally ruled against the Colorado Department of Corrections in a lawsuit brought by DU's Sturm College of Law Civil Rights Clinic on behalf of Troy Anderson, one of several inmates who's been at CSP for a decade or more with minimal exposure to the outdoors. At the supermax, so-called "outdoor rec" for high-security inmates consists of up to an hour of exercise in an odd-shaped room on each tier equipped with a chin-up bar; small holes allow some fresh air from outside to reach the room. Calling CSP "out of step with the rest of the nation" -- even the notorious federal supermax in Florence allows its inmates outdoor recreation in individual cages -- Jackson declared that prison officials must provide its charges with "meaningful exposure" to natural light and air.

Prison officials responded to the ruling by moving Anderson to the Sterling Correctional Facility, where his recreation periods now take place in a narrow room with concrete walls that offers a small patch of meshed-in sky at its far end. Anderson, who's described the experience as "like being in a shoebox," is still battling DOC officials over whether they have properly complied with Jackson's orders in the case.

But moving Anderson hasn't done anything to correct the situation at CSP, the student lawyers maintain in their new complaint, brought on behalf of three current supermax inmates. The Anderson ruling "explicitly states that outdoor exercise at CSP was not in line with constitutional standards," reads a statement announcing the new lawsuit.

The new suit isn't seeking monetary damages, but rather a court order instructing prison officials to provide the "meaningful" exposure to fresh air and natural light that Jackson described in his ruling last year. "The Eighth Amendment does not mandate comfortable prisons," Jackson wrote, "but it does forbid inhumane conditions."

From our prison archives: "Wardens told to stop sending mentally ill prisoners to solitary."

Have a tip for this author? Send it to alan.prendergast@westword.com.

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.