Prison blues 

Riot investigation launched; critics of for-profit prisons warn of transfers

click to enlarge The Crowley County Correctional Facility was damaged - after an inmate uprising lasting more than five hours. - COLORADO DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS
  • Colorado Dept. of Corrections
  • The Crowley County Correctional Facility was damaged after an inmate uprising lasting more than five hours.

For more than two hours, Tammera Bravo's son, an inmate at Crowley Correctional Facility, delivered "minute-by-minute terror" over the phone as prisoners smashed their surroundings.

"He said, 'It's on Mom. Those prisoners from Washington are refusing to come out of the yard.' "

Bravo's 24-year-old son, whose name is being withheld because Bravo fears retaliation by guards, described the July 20 incident to her just after it began at 7:30 p.m.

Washington inmates at the private prison in Olney Springs, about 80 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, had reached a boiling point because of their recent transfer and because they didn't like their new cells, Bravo said.

Five and a half hours later, it was over. All in all, as many as 400 of the prison's more than 1,100 inmates had been involved. Two of five cellblocks were trashed, at least one control room had been breached, fires had burned, and 13 inmates were injured.

More than 100 state law enforcement personnel had responded, joining officers from the privately owned, for-profit prison in quashing the riot.

A week later, Bravo still hasn't been able to visit her son because the prison has denied visitors access. But in phone calls, her son told her that the riot had erupted after 198 prisoners from Washington state had been recently transferred, and many were angry. They had been taken roughly 1,400 miles away from their home state, and, they were also agitated because prison rules in Colorado don't allow for conjugal visits, unlike in Washington.

The private prison is owned by Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) -- the nation's largest private prison provider. In addition to the Washington prisoners, there were another 807 prisoners from Colorado and 120 from Wyoming at the time of the melee.

Explosive situations

On Tuesday, Alison Morgan, spokeswoman for the state's prison system, cautioned that investigators still haven't determined what happened and are trying track down the instigators for prosecution.

"At this point, it's still too premature to identify the root causes," she said.

But others say the state's federal agreement that allows inmates to be shuffled from one state to another is a problem that can provoke explosive incidents like that at Crowley County prison.

Such transfers have become commonplace in Colorado in the last decade.

Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Private Corrections Institute -- which has been extremely critical of privatized prisons -- said the transfers hurt inmates' ties to family and friends. Many families, he said, are too poor to afford regular visits and inmates are left with little to look forward to and no life outside prison walls.

Kopczynski says it was no coincidence that, a day after the Crowley County prison incident, 28 Colorado inmates rebelled at a CCA private prison in Tutwiler, Miss., setting fire to mattresses and clothing.

"You're importing inmates from Washington and Wyoming to Colorado, and then you're shipping Colorado inmates off to Mississippi," Kopczynski said. "Does anyone see the irony here?"

However, Morgan said that the Tutwiler prisoners are among Colorado's most dangerous high-security inmates. She, along with a CCA spokeswoman, say the Tutwiler incident was the result of inmates seizing an opportunity to cause trouble after they heard about the riot in Crowley County.

Low pay, low guard ratio

There are currently 19 state-owned prison complexes in Colorado, and five for-profit private prisons -- four of them operated by Corrections Corporation of America.

Morgan, along with many others, including Gov. Bill Owens, praises the rise of private companies housing prisoners, saying they free up construction dollars for universities and save the Department of Corrections money.

"It's a partnership the state cannot afford to turn its back on," she said.

At CCA's Crowley County prison, she said, the company spends $50 per day to house inmates, compared to the $66 a day the state spends on inmates at its own Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility.

However, not everyone is sold.

In 2002, former state Sen. Penfield Tate, as he had in years prior, introduced unsuccessful legislation that would have prevented Colorado inmates from being transferred out of state. Tate became worried after incidents occurred in the 1990s similar to the one in Crowley County.

"We've seen a history of it," Tate said.

At CCA-owned private prisons, the guard-to-inmate ratios are far lower than at state-operated Department of Corrections facilities. The state's average ratio is one guard for less than five inmates, while the for-profit CCA averages one guard for nearly eight inmates. Morgan said the vast difference in ratios is justified because the state tends to deal with more difficult inmates.

However, critics like Kopczynski note that salaries for private prison guards tend to be much lower. At the Crowley County prison, guards make an average of $1,818 a month, compared to state guard salaries that start at $2,774 a month.

Because private prisons tend to pay guards less, companies grapple with higher turnover, meaning fewer experienced guards are available to handle complex inmate issues, Kopczynski said. Some guards, he said, don't last long enough to complete their training, which can take months. Others stay just a few years, he added.

Since last week's riot, Pueblo West Rep. Buffie McFadyen, a Democrat, has asked for a full accounting of the taxpayer costs related to quelling the uprising.

Louise Chickering, a spokeswoman for CCA, said the company would reimburse the state for the costs of the incident.

Meanwhile, state prison officials, working with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and CCA, expect to interview hundreds of guards and inmates -- some of whom have already been transferred to other prisons in Colorado because of the riot -- and it could be weeks or months before a final report details exactly what happened in Olney Springs.


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