Going off 

Life in prison can be a riot

click to enlarge Aftermath of the inmate riot at the privately-owned Crowley County Correctional Facility in southeast - Colorado last summer.
  • Aftermath of the inmate riot at the privately-owned Crowley County Correctional Facility in southeast Colorado last summer.

At most private prisons, staffers earn far less than state correctional officers, receive less training and are far more likely to quit in their first year on the job.

Take the Crowley County Correctional Facility (CCCF), for example, where the average salary is $21,816 a year plus benefits. (By comparison, the starting wage for a Colorado Department of Corrections officer is $33, 284 a year plus benefits.)

The annual staff turnover rate at Crowley, 70 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, is 45 percent.

Stingy budgets, lousy wages and inability to attract and maintain well-trained employees are at the heart of many critics' objections to for-profit prisons. Inmates in the Colorado facilities that are operated by the private Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) have many complaints about bad food, poor medical care and a general "lack of professionalism" among staff.

Despite supposedly vigilant monitoring by the DOC, things have occasionally gotten out of control -- as they did at Crowley last July 20 when the prison erupted in riot. The prison's staff, as well as DOC officials, had ample notice of problems. But the company did little to address the issues, and the DOC's efforts to compel corrections to deficiencies amounted to gentle nudges and reminders that were largely ignored.

Grievance after grievance

When CCA bought the prison in 2002, the company set about building two new housing units, planning to boost capacity from a target inmate population of 1,000 to 1,800 without adding more recreation space or kitchen facilities.

The number of counts -- the prison equivalent of roll call -- increased dramatically, cutting into rec time. Food service deteriorated, in both quality and size of portions.

"We were organizing a sit-down because the food was so bad," recalls Chris Richards, a recently paroled Colorado inmate. "I lost 28 pounds in three months. Then I got into [segregation], and they were serving rotten food there -- rotten peas, rotten lettuce, no meat, no protein. When you got stew, it was all fat."

The DOC monitors who visited the prison, Richards adds, were no help: "They just ignored me. They didn't like me because I filed grievance after grievance. They said that when I learned to follow the rules, things would go smoother for me."

Deteriorating conditions

A DOC monitor visited the prison on a weekly basis. But reports show that several of the visits last spring and summer were as brief as two hours; in some instances, the monitor didn't have time to visit living units, talk with case managers or observe training or programs.

Still, the monitors noted chronic problems with kitchen sanitation ("floors were wet and had trash and boxes scattered"), substitutions in the posted menu ("the soup was very thin and the pudding was also runny"), numerous security issues and dismal prisoner morale ("offenders complaining about food and not earning enough money to purchase needed canteen items").

The situation deteriorated further in early July, when 198 Washington inmates arrived. Accustomed to more privileges than Crowley offered, the newcomers were disgruntled from the start. Two weeks before the riot, a DOC monitor was told by Colorado prisoners that "the Washington inmates are threatening to 'go off.'"

"The staff knew it was coming," says former Crowley inmate Lee Burke.

Richards says the influx of new prisoners only intensified the resentments over excessive counts and limited yard time. "All these problems started because there was nothing to lose then," he says. "They were just confining us in our cells."

Inmates take over

The DOC's investigation into the riot found that "the entire incident may have been due to an improper use of force by CCCF staff." Prisoners say that a guard had body-slammed a handcuffed Washington inmate earlier that day. Around 7:30 that evening, a large group of inmates refused to clear the yard, demanding to speak with the warden.

Flanked by several guards, a captain attempted to speak with the group's leaders, but the staff quickly retreated from the yard and started to evacuate the facility. Emboldened, the inmates poured into the housing units and began to help themselves to free weights. Once they realized no one was going to stop them, they started breaking windows and doors, smashing electronic control centers, busting fixtures and flooding tiers, setting fires and rifling case managers' records, looking for the names of snitches and kiddie-rapers.

The ease with which the inmates took over the place amazed them. Construction was shoddy, security systems easily defeated, and the shorthanded staff was clearly ill prepared for the crisis.

Initially, management was under the impression that all employees had been evacuated, but that wasn't the case. Two officers who were left behind when their colleagues took off hid in a cell in a segregation unit. A forgotten female librarian stayed in the library for hours with 37 inmates who declined to join in the pandemonium.

Millions of dollars in damage

Shortly after the riot began, Nolin Renfrow, DOC's director of prisons, contacted Crowley's managers and ordered them to use gas to disperse the inmates. But Warden Brent Crouse declined to do so, saying he needed to get approval from CCA corporate headquarters in Tennessee. The confusion over the chain of command allowed the prisoners to rampage past midnight, causing millions of dollars' worth of damage.

By the time it was over, hundreds of rounds of buckshot, birdshot, rubber pellets, smoke and "stingball" grenades, and untold liters of pepper spray had been unleashed on the prisoners. Nineteen inmates were seriously injured, including one who'd been stabbed, beaten with weight bars, thrown off the second tier of his cellblock, and struck on the head with a microwave oven. Miraculously, no one was killed.

What was left of the prison remained in lockdown for almost a month. Thirty-seven CCA employees resigned or were fired in the weeks following the riot, and Warden Crouse was replaced.

The DOC's after-action report on the riot, released last October, blasts CCA management for ignoring the monitors' recommendations, inadequate training of staff, its dithering response the night of the riot. The report urges a number of changes in the operation of the prison, including the novel idea of responding to inmate complaints "in a timely manner."

Dangerously understaffed

The company "will take the conclusions and recommendations of the report under thoughtful consideration," says Corrections Corporation of America spokesman Steve Owen. But the riot is unlikely to alter the state's basic reliance on the private company to house its excess prisoners; Colorado needs private beds now more than ever, since the destruction of half of Crowley's housing units has increased crowding throughout the system.

According to Steve Haden, an inmate at Crowley, the prison was only starting to get back to a "normal" routine some five months after the riot -- and little has changed. "The facility remains dangerously understaffed as a result of the mass exodus of security staff," he says.

"It's not over," says former inmate Burke. "They're going to do it again, now that they know how easy it is."


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