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Colorado: CCA slow in response to riot

Prison riot reaction faulted
State: Private firm responded slowly and without needed force
By Kirk Mitchell and Jim Hughes
Denver Post Staff Writers
August 08, 2004 -

Olney Springs - As inmates at Crowley County Correctional Facility grew restless and agitated in the exercise yard on the evening of July 20, officers of the private company charged with managing the prison withdrew to regroup.

"They ran," said inmate Robert Horn, serving five years for passing bad checks. "They just abandoned the place."

All but one.

As a peaceful protest devolved into arson and riot over five hours, prison librarian Linda Lyons kept sole watch over 37 male inmates. Although she radioed her location, her supervisors from the private Corrections Corporation of America made no move to retrieve her. They then failed to notify an elite anti-riot team from the Department of Corrections that she had been left behind.

While up to 500 inmates in a prison full of 1,100 killers, rapists, thieves and drug dealers brought their riot within one building of the library, Lyons was never harmed. She said the men with her talked, played chess and stayed clear of the melee while she maintained a calm demeanor.

"Showing fear would have upset the inmates," Lyons said.

A Department of Corrections review of Colorado's most destructive inmate uprising has found that the official response was dogged by slow decision-making and a lack of communication. A senior department official said CCA officials failed to respond promptly and with enough force, ignored an offer to negotiate, then left the librarian behind as they retreated to safe positions.

Beyond the questions about the response, inmates and a corrections officer from CCA say the company's managers had also failed to heed weeks of warnings about growing inmate unrest.

That unrest - over such typical inmate complaints as poor food, inequitable treatment of prisoners and a lack of access to prison officials - blossomed into a riot after corrections officers disciplined one unruly inmate.

Officials with CCA, which manages the Crowley County prison through a contract with the department, dispute much of the department's criticisms. They insist they mounted an organized response to the rebellion, deployed chemical agents promptly and never ignored inmate grievances or a request that night to see the warden.

On the contrary, said spokesman Steve Owen, company officials tried to negotiate an end to the uprising before the riot but were forced to withdraw as inmates grew increasingly angry.

"If there are things we didn't do right, we're going to own up to it," Owen said. "We're going to fix all that."

The company has already placed one Crowley County captain on administrative leave because his statements about the riot were "very inconsistent," Owen said Saturday.

"There is a concern about the truthfulness of his statement," he said.

The department's investigation is not yet complete, but interviews with inmates, department officials and a guard at the prison provide an outline of the events that nearly killed one inmate and left the prison smoldering and partly uninhabitable.

Inmate allegedly beaten

In the weeks before the riot, about 200 inmates from Washington state had been moved to Crowley County as CCA sought to maximize profits by filling every bed.

At 10 a.m. the day of the riot, one of the Washington inmates refused to go to work, according to the department's director of prisons, Nolin Renfrow.

When the inmate struggled with an officer taking him to a disciplinary unit, several officers jerked the inmate to the ground, said inmate Fredrick Morris, 47, who is serving a life sentence for murder. Horn also witnessed the inmate's treatment.

"These other guards started pummeling him and kicking him," Horn said. "We'd just had enough, you know? To treat someone like an animal is not going to fly anymore."

CCA and the department are both investigating the complaint about the alleged beating of the inmate, whose name was not released. The department's inspector general says a videotape of the incident does not appear to show excessive force. But neither the department nor CCA has reached a conclusion on whether the corrections officer went too far.

Inmates thought he did.

The boiling point

CCA is a Tennessee-based for-profit corporation with contracts to manage prisons and jails across the United States, including four here. Colorado pays the company $49 per inmate per day and requires the company to comply with all state and federal rules for inmate care.

The company and its supporters say they can profit from incarceration by employing efficient techniques lost on state bureaucracies.

Inmates at Crowley County said that quest for profit went too far at the prison.

Morris, who had worked as a cook at the prison, said he quit his job of three years because of the facility's poor food preparation practices.

Staff were ordered to grind hot dogs for spaghetti sauce, use muffin mix in meatloaf, combine instant potatoes with pinto beans for burritos and put pork in soup intended for Jewish inmates, Morris said.

He said he complained about the practices to a CCA supervisor in March but nothing happened.

"The food has gotten worse," Morris said.

CCA officials said they had received no formal grievances about the food. The most recent inspection by the department, on June 29, found that the food served to inmates at Crowley County was considered "good" by department standards in nearly every category.

In volunteer prison surveys for the department, Crowley County inmates in October rated food they received to be lower in quality across the board than prisoners at department prisons.

But Owen said CCA by contract serves the exact same menus as the department.

Prisoners have not filed any grievances about food quality, he said.

Inmates had a variety of other complaints against Crowley County.

Colorado inmates were upset that they were paid only 60 cents a day for doing the same work as inmates transferred to the prison from Washington a week earlier. Washington pays inmates $3 per day for work, and CCA is bound by contract to follow Washington policies when keeping that state's inmates, Owen said. Colorado lets CCA pay local inmates less.

All of that boiled over July 20.

A Crowley County correctional officer said inmates had been talking for weeks about an uprising.

"I was told about it," said the officer, whose name is being withheld. "They said it wasn't going to be more than two months, at the most. It wasn't even that long. I was told this by several different inmates."

"They took off running"

On the night of July 20, correctional officers opened a gate connecting the east recreational yard with the west about 7 p.m. so inmates could play softball in the west yard.

Instead of a handful, hundreds streamed into the west yard, said inmate Terry Poole, serving life for kidnapping.

Several Washington inmates asked correctional officers to speak with Warden Brent Crouse about their grievances, Renfrow said.

Crowley County security chief Richard Selman said he never heard about the requests. Owen, the CCA spokesman, said the company's investigation has determined that an inmate asked to speak with a "supervisor" - not the warden.

After the request was relayed to supervisors, a shift captain was unable to locate the inmate who made the request, Owen said. At that point, the captain became concerned for the safety of the prison staff and they withdrew from the yard - effectively relinquishing control to the inmates.

"They took off running, and they left the female employees behind," said William Morris, another Crowley County Correctional Facility inmate.

CCA reported the prisoner rebellion to department officials, and Renfrow said he urged CCA to immediately use chemical agents to push inmates away from the living units and put down the uprising.

But, Renfrow said, CCA officials told department monitors that they needed approval from their Nashville headquarters before deploying tear gas.

CCA spokesman Owen says the company's officers did not need approval from Nashville and did respond promptly. In a written response to questions, he said "chemical agents had already been disbursed by facility staff at approximately 8:20 p.m." That would be before Renfrow said he asked for its use.

Regardless of when the first gas was used, it came much later than inmates expected and gave ringleaders an opportunity to organize real mayhem.

"If they would have just went back, sat on the towers and shot tear gas from up there, there probably would have been less of a riot," William Morris said. "Everybody would have went home. They would have dispersed."

Librarian kept her cool

As inmates began setting the prison facilities ablaze, librarian Lyons, 56, ordered the men in the library back to their cells. They implored her not to force them out into the yard, where other inmates were clearly gearing up for a fight.

Before long, fires were burning in front of each living unit and the greenhouse was burning. In the yard, scores of inmates used filing cabinets and doors as shields as they approached officers.

They barricaded doors with soda machines they lit on fire. Unbreakable windows were blown out, and inmates were using shards of glass as shanks. The amount of damage still has not been calculated, but it may approach $1 million.

Renfrow said he asked CCA if all employees had made it safely out of the prisoner-controlled grounds. He said he was mistakenly told they had.

If he had known Lyons was still in harm's way, he said, he would have immediately ordered officers to get her. Inmates broke into the shop next to the library, said Nathan Walter, commander of the department's Special Operations Response Team, or SORT.

Still, Lyons, a second-year CCA employee, didn't fret, and she said she is not upset with CCA for failing to dispatch a team to rescue her. In her mind, she didn't need rescuing.

"I felt safe where I was," she said.

It was 10 p.m. before the SORT team had moved in to retake the first of the dorms. Outnumbered by dozens of prisoners to each one, SORT members used rubber pellets and "triple chaser" tear gas bundles that separated and exploded to push back inmates who were hurling rocks, sticks, furniture and flaming Molotov cocktails.

In the aftermath, they learned that while Lyons was unharmed, a group of as many as 15 inmates had gone on the prowl in the prison to attack sex offenders and men suspected of being snitches.

The man hurt worst during the riot, burglar Rudy Lujan, was attacked by a mob of maybe 15 inmates who believed he had snitched on inmates to the guards, Horn said. They beat him, stabbed him, threw him over the railing of the second-floor tier of cells and tossed a microwave oven onto his limp frame.

He was hospitalized in critical condition, and officials have not offered an update since.

The prison can be repaired, but if CCA's policies don't change, it will happen again, Horn predicted.

"Those people (in Olney Springs) need to understand that this is going to occur over and over again," he said. "The population in that area is seriously lucky. At any point, (the inmates) could have just turned to that fence and mowed that fence down. Imagine five or six hundred crazed individuals running into Olney Springs."

Staff writer Kirk Mitchell can be reached at 303-820-1206 or .,1413,36~53~2321437,00.html#

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