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 10-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.
Standards established by the American Correctional Association require even maximum-security inmates 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.
'Relinquish the broom'
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 noncombatants back inside the building, he figured he was safer in the yard with the rest.
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 60 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 30 days of administrative segregation (ad-seg), or 23-hour-a-day lockdown.
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.
Making a point
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.
Even the rampage in the yard failed to attract much notice outside of Tutwiler. It was overshadowed by a much more serious disturbance that had erupted the night before at the Crowley County Correctional Facility in southeast Colorado, one of CCA's four prisons in this state. Hundreds of inmates rioted for hours at Crowley, setting fires and gutting buildings, battling Special Operations Response Teams armed with tear gas and rubber bullets, and generally raising hell.
Prison staff abandoned their posts early in the conflict, leaving two guards and a librarian to fend for themselves. But the inmates weren't looking for hostages; they were more interested in settling scores among themselves (one prisoner was savagely beaten and stabbed) and ripping the place apart.
"These guys wanted to make a point," says former DOC inmate Lee Burke, who served five years at Crowley but was released a few months before the riot. "Not a single one of them tried to escape. They broke into the maintenance warehouse to take tools to destroy the facility."
The mutiny at Crowley was started by recently arrived inmates from the state of Washington, who, like the Colorado men at Tallahatchie, were greatly distressed at being stuck in a private hoosegow more than 1,000 miles from home.
But Crowley, unlike Tallahatchie, is a medium-security facility, and the Colorado inmates who joined in the destruction included many low-level, nonviolent offenders -- the more typical clientele for private prisons, which generally take the "cream of the crop" rather than the troublemakers.
Advocates of privatization say that "facility disturbances" -- prison-speak for riots -- are a fact of life even in the best-run prisons. But the circumstances surrounding the Crowley bust-up and ongoing security issues at Tallahatchie suggest otherwise. The problem may have less to do with the type of inmate housed there than with the way for-profit prisons are managed.
Caught in a budget squeeze and reluctant to parole even nonviolent offenders, Colorado's prison system has failed to keep up with its rising inmate population, which now stands at 18,700 and is expected to increase by another 4,000 by 2008.
To relieve overcrowding, the DOC has come to rely heavily on CCA, which has become the sixth-largest prison system in the country, housing more than 62,000 inmates in 20 states. Despite a long-standing policy of keeping its highest-security prisoners in its own system, Colorado is now using the private contractor to handle its special management cases as well.
Prisoners say the Mississippi experiment is a formula for more violence, given the mounting evidence of CCA's deficiencies -- including substandard conditions, inadequate training, high turnover, understaffing and chronic security lapses.
Going private was supposed to save Colorado a bundle of money and reduce the violence in state prisons. But cut-rate corrections is like cut-rate surgery: You get what you pay for.
Sometimes what you get is a cage with a cheap lock.
A decade ago, the state's solution for unruly inmates was the Colorado State Penitentiary, a 504-bed control-unit prison designed to house "the worst of the worst" in total isolation. When it opened in 1993, CSP was hailed as the latest thing in behavior modification of incorrigibles.
In its early years, CSP was used so capriciously that it featured one unit of female prisoners guilty of such dire crimes as "verbal abuse" and "smoking in the hole." But before long, CSP was filled to capacity with gangbangers, escape risks and seriously violent offenders. (Twelve percent of its current residents have been diagnosed as mentally ill.) A 252-bed addition in 1998 hardly made a dent in the waiting list.
One reason for the crunch was the overall growth of the prison population, but there were other factors, too. Largely because of its aggressive anti-gang policy, Colorado tends to classify more of its prisoners as administrative-segregation -- its highest custody level -- than do most other states. The tag now applies to 7 percent of the DOC's population, roughly double the national average.
And a bottleneck has developed within CSP itself, which was originally intended to offer an 18-month disciplinary program; now the average length of stay there is 31 months.
Critics of the supermax approach contend that it intensifies the problem it's trying to address.
"Once they get in, they don't get out for years," says Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "It becomes the path of least resistance for the administration, but it also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The research shows that the consequences of long-term solitary confinement are anti-social behavior and an increase in propensity for violence."
Donner acknowledges that the DOC needs to isolate prisoners for various reasons. Still, she believes the department relies too heavily on branding its problem prisoners ad-seg rather than using "disciplinary segregation."
"Like incarceration in general, the more you use it, it has a diminishing deterrent effect," she says. "Once you've been through it and you're no longer scared of it, what are they going to do with you?"
Last year the DOC's efforts to build a second, $80-million supermax, known as CSP II, were stalled when Donner's group sued. The lawsuit, which challenges the use of certificates of participation to get around state restrictions on multiyear debt, also tied up planned construction at the new Fitzsimons campus of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, but the supermax expansion was the prime target.
A string of gang-related rumbles at three state prisons last year sent officials scrambling to find more ad-seg beds. Blocked by litigation from building another CSP, they began to consider what the DOC has always insisted is a last resort -- shipping inmates out of state -- in order to remove suspected gang leaders from their "power base."
"When we had to move 20 guys out of Fremont [prison], it had a domino effect throughout the system," says DOC spokeswoman Morgan. "There were five additional incidents after that. You reach a point where you're just scrambling the pot. You're not isolating the problem; you're just shifting it to another facility."
The Texas deal
Although the DOC has shipped excess prisoners to private facilities sporadically since the early 1990s, it had never tried to export high-security prisoners before -- and with good reason. Few contractors are equipped to handle such inmates, and a state law forbids the DOC from placing inmates in private prisons unless they're classified as medium-security or less.
But officials found a loophole in the law: The definition of "private prisons" in the statute referred only to such prisons located in Colorado. With the blessing of the Colorado Legislature and the attorney general's office, the DOC decided it had a green light.
"I don't have a problem doing this," state Sen. Dave Owen, a Republican from Greeley, told his colleagues. "I wish we could move them to Alaska and dig a hole."
The state's initial choice was the Guadalupe County Adult Detention Center, a county jail in south Texas. Previous attempts to warehouse Colorado inmates in Texas jails had erupted in riots and lawsuits. But Guadalupe's housing offer was hard to turn down: a mere $43 per inmate per day, considerably less than the $69 a day it costs the DOC to house the average medium-security inmate in Colorado.
Yet the Texas deal quickly unraveled. In selling the move to the Colorado media, the DOC had emphasized the dangerous, disruptive character of the "gang bosses" who were being moved out -- men like Miguel "Spanky" Quirino, who'd killed a rival gang leader in a turf war, and Ramon "Munchie" Lopez, who'd killed a 16-year-old at Red Rocks Park west of Denver.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards took a close look at their records and said no, thanks: A Texas law forbids county jails from taking inmates who have a pattern of institutional violence or escape attempts.
Curiously, jail officials in Guadalupe County tried to contest the decision by arguing that Colorado's "bad boys" weren't nearly as bad as the DOC wanted the folks back home to think. Many of the prisoners were up for parole soon, and some hadn't directly participated in riots at all.
"The media has turned this into a 'sensational' story and over exaggerated the danger, if any, to our facility," wrote jail administrator Debra Jordan to Terry Julian, director of Texas's jail-standards commission.
In fact, while the group shipped out of state includes many bad actors, there are others whose paperwork suggests that, like Romero, they won their pariah classification primarily on the strength of their tattoos and suspected gang status.
"He got several write-ups, but not for anything violent," says Romero's mother, Paulette Tafoya. "They were saying he was in a gang ... I told them Matt was never gang-affiliated when he was on the streets. They were very rude to me. They just said, 'Well, he's in a gang now.' They had already made up their minds to ad-seg him. "
Vacant meat locker
Some prisoners say they were ad-segged because of an altercation with another inmate -- a dispute of a personal nature that hardly rises to the level of a riot. Alfredo Garcia, for example, claims that he was minding his own business in CCA's Huerfano County Correctional Facility when he was given a new cellmate -- a man who'd gone to prison for shooting Garcia's sister and cousin. An assault charge ensued.
"He was in a minimum facility, ready to come out," says Garcia's aunt, Elsie Mecillas. "He'd been doing his time, no regressions, no setbacks. Then they put this guy in there, the last guy they should ever have put in his cell, and now he's in segregation. They set him up for failure; I really believe that."
Texas officials, though, considered the Colorado contingent to be about as innocuous as toxic waste. The DOC was forced to turn to the only other bidder for its strange cargo: Corrections Corporation of America's nearly vacant meat locker in Mississippi.
In gasping rust-belt towns and battered farm communities, the economic choices are often limited: Die slowly, or take the industries nobody else wants. In the case of Tutwiler, Miss., population 1,364, CCA didn't have to do any wooing. In one of the poorest counties in the poorest state in the country, with per capita personal income of $17,185 a year, a new prison was something to be welcomed with cheers and bright banners.
In addition to hiring much of its staff locally, CCA pays the county $300,000 in property taxes a year. The company also agreed to include a new county jail in the prison complex, replacing one that was condemned. When the 1,400-bed Tallahatchie prison is full, it more than doubles the size of the town.
The prison hasn't always been full, though. After Alabama pulled its inmates out of Tallahatchie last spring, there were staff layoffs and rumors that the place would shut down.
But a change in Mississippi's law, approved by newly elected Gov. Haley Barbour, allowed CCA to seek out maximum-security prisoners from other states -- including 128 inmates from Colorado, at the sumptuous price of $51 a head per day.
These ad-seg inmates have few privileges and little contact with the outside world. They can't even communicate with the media about their situation, except through letters. Two years ago, the Colorado DOC banned all media interviews with ad-seg inmates, making hundreds of prisoners and entire facilities virtually off-limits to reporters.
Scores of complaints
But inmates have tried to air their grievances anyway -- through hunger strikes, the July disturbance in the yard, complaints to DOC officials and letters to loved ones and reporters.
They say they're locked down most of the time, two to a cell; apparently their "disruptive" character isn't sufficiently violent to require single-celling. The monotonous menu is often served cold, and canteen items are expensive.
Although the situation seems to have improved somewhat since last summer, the prisoners still describe the staff as inexperienced and quick to use force.
"This is the third time that I have been sent out of state," says Greg Ewing, 41, who has been doing time for armed robberies and kidnapping since he was 19. "This is the worst I've ever seen. They have staff who don't even know how to use handcuffs."
"Inmates are getting beat on and gassed," reports Garcia. "One time I was watching them beat on an inmate that they brought from another pod. Officers yelled for everyone to stop looking. Then officers proceeded to spray gas into a few cells, and one officer pointed a gun at me."
According to Garcia, trays of food sit outside the cells for hours. "Sometimes they force us to get on the ground or on our knees just to receive a meal," he says.
Medical care is also a sore point. Ewing, for example, says he's waited months for an EKG ordered in October. And inmates claim that their complaints about the situation go largely unaddressed. "We have followed the grievance process, and nothing changes," Romero says.
The DOC has monitors visiting the prison at least once a month. Their reports indicate that some inmates are satisfied with the food. During a surprise visit, DOC director Joe Ortiz reportedly encountered one inmate who said he preferred Tallahatchie to Colorado's prisons.
But the reports also note ongoing issues with inmates being charged for medical services and not receiving them, a lack of programs and library books, food not kept at proper temperatures, and a disciplinary process that doesn't follow Colorado requirements of due process.
Colorado officials were particularly alarmed by the staff's response to the July riot. The guard who'd pumped 60 rounds of pepper balls into a cell had been caught on videotape. In October, Ortiz wrote a letter to CCA president John Ferguson demanding an end to the practice.
In a written statement, CCA spokesman Steve Owen declined to address several specific inmate complaints but insisted that training, medical care and food service at Tallahatchie meet or exceed American Correctional Association standards. Food is kept hot, he wrote, servers wear "appropriate gloves," and the prison plans to offer GED classes for the Colorado inmates.
Tallahatchie warden Jim Cooke has assured locals that the flimsy locks on the recreation pens were replaced with sterner stuff. Cameras have been installed in the yard, and a second guard now supervises the area when inmates are exercising.
In recent months, however, there have been at least two other security breaches at Tallahatchie. In October, staff discovered that prisoners in one pod had stuffed 18 of 20 cell-door latches with toilet paper. In many cases, the maneuver prevented the mechanism from locking.
In November, a phone installer accidentally hit the "group release" button in a control center, opening all the cell doors in a pod housing rival gang members. More than two dozen inmates began fighting. Several were injured. One was stabbed multiple times before guards sent the warriors scurrying with blasts of pepper spray.
The riots at Crowley and Tallahatchie last July had little effect on Corrections Corporation of America's bottom line. The company reported that third-quarter revenues rose 11 percent to $295 million, thanks to higher occupancy levels and new management contracts.
These days, Tallahatchie is three-fourths full, with 680 Hawaiians, 121 Colorado prisoners and a shipment of 128 maximum-security inmates from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. All told, Colorado now has more than 2,700 inmates in CCA prisons.
State officials say the only alternative to using private lockups is an expensive one: building more prisons. But studies prepared by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and other opponents of privatization suggest that the apparent savings involved in paying a contractor 50 bucks per miscreant per day are misleading.
The rate doesn't include transportation, case-management oversight, non-routine medical care, the cost of monitoring the prisons, or the state's burden of defending lawsuits. Once these costs are factored in, according to one CCJRC analysis, the per diem rate to close to $64 -- close to the average cost of housing an inmate in a state prison.
Of course, some of the hidden costs of going private can't be calculated at all. Prisoners who have strong family connections on the outside are less likely to return to prison than those who don't, and shipping inmates out of state severely strains those ties.
Relatives of Colorado's Tallahatchie prisoners say they can't afford to visit the inmates with any regularity, if at all. Some can barely afford the $13.50 collect phone calls they receive every week or two.
"I can take a call every two or three weeks," says Tafoya, Romero's mother. "I talked to him on Thanksgiving, and he was really down. He said, 'Mom, I don't know how much more of this I can take. I feel like I'm going to lose it.' I worry about him night and day."
"We could barely see him here, let alone over there," says Mecillas, Garcia's aunt, who'd been preparing to drive from Denver to Walsenburg to visit her nephew when she found out he'd been moved to Burlington, then Mississippi.
Even family members who manage to make the trip wonder what good it does. Susan, the wife of a Tallahatchie inmate who asked that her real name not be used, traveled to Tutwiler in September. Her husband was brought into a visiting room in shackles, and she talked to him from the other side of a glass screen.
"The facility was disgusting," she says. "The room smelled like urine. There were cockroaches crawling across the glass. It was a good-ol'-boy kind of place."
Susan and her husband have been together for seven years. For most of that time, he's been in prison on an assault charge. His release date is only a year away, and until the past few months, Susan thought the marriage would survive his incarceration. But then he got ad-segged after a melee in the chow hall at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility last March and was on his way to Texas, then Mississippi.
"To be honest with you, I'm ready to file for divorce," she says. "This move has separated us completely. It's not a relationship anymore. It's just a hardship.
"These people are being bartered at $51 a day," Susan continued. "There's something ethically wrong with that."
Private prisons, she notes, have no financial incentive to help a prisoner succeed in becoming a productive member of society; their profit margin depends on filling beds.
"They know that if they present it as a public-safety issue, they can get away with it," Susan says, "when what they're really trying to do is save a few bucks."
Alan Prendergast is a staff writer for Westword in Denver, where this article first appeared. Next week's issue will include more about last summer's riot at the privately owned Crowley County Correctional Facility southeast of Colorado Springs.