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DOC concerned about Crowley prison staff turnover

September 22, 2004

DENVER - Part of the problem in managing rioting inmates at a private prison in Crowley County in July was that the facility had a 45 percent turnover rate in employees, state corrections officials told lawmakers Tuesday.

A day after a Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman told The Pueblo Chieftain that DOC doesn't routinely track employment matters at private prisons, the DOC's director of prisons, Nolin Renfrow, told the legislative Joint Budget Committee that one of the things under investigation is the prison's high turnover rate.

DOC wants to know if that high rate contributed to the riot among 500 inmates July 20 at the Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs, which is operated by Corrections Corp. of America. The Nashville, Tenn., company also operates three other private prisons in Colorado.

"We know that it was 45 percent at this particular facility," Renfrow told the six-member panel that requested a review of DOC's investigation of the riot. "Over the past few years, we have monitored their turnover as a whole. I think ours is around 8 to 10 percent. I think they have averaged 20 to 25 percent turnover in the past few years across CCA (in the state)."

Renfrow said prison workers often quit because they decide working in a prison is not for them. But others leave private prisons because of the lower pay, some moving into higher-paying DOC jobs elsewhere in the state, he said. Crowley guards average $1,818 a month, while their DOC counterparts start at $2,774 a month.

Currently, DOC is investigating the riot and is planning to issue a report to Gov. Bill Owens in October.

That investigation includes determining what prison staff workers did and when they did it during the five-hour riot, Renfrow said.

At one point before he arrived at the Crowley prison, Renfrow said he ordered staff workers to spray crowd-controlling chemicals into the main yard where many prisoners were rioting.

"The word we received back (after giving the order) was that CCA was trying to get authorization to do that from their headquarters," Renfrow said. "Over the next two to three hours, I continued to repeat my orders as I was driving to the facility from Colorado Springs. Eventually, when our staff arrived, we did do that and the inmates were brought under control."

Renfrow said that CCA workers did use pepper spray on some inmates, but only to rescue two co-workers who had locked themselves into a cell to protect themselves from rioters.

"Our investigation indicates that we feel that control could have been gained earlier if they had a stronger and more rapid response to the situation," Renfrow said. "The (high turnover rate) generally means that tenured staff is generally low, and when tenured staff is very low, sometimes they have difficulties dealing with situations that are not typical of everyday operations."

He said CCA's policy in dealing with riots is to "stand down and wait" for DOC officials to arrive to handle it.

In addition to the internal report DOC is preparing, the riot has also spurred the Legislative Audit Committee to order a state audit of private prisons, including what costs are borne by local law enforcement agencies in dealing with riots and prisoner escapes. Renfrow said private prisons are already required to reimburse the state for expenses incurred from riots in their facilities.

"I'm really concerned with what the counties are going to have to do with private prisons, what's expected of them and whether or not they really know what they're getting into when they get into a private prison situation," said Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, who sat in on the briefing. "I know that (DOC) has the ability to get a team together to react to a violent situation. Shouldn't private prisons have that same capability to control their own facility?"

Renfrow agreed, saying one of the recommendations he expects to make to the governor is to ensure that private prison guards are better trained and equipped to handle riots.

While JBC members said they, too, want to know what impact private prisons have on local communities, its chairman cautioned that Coloradans should get used to having them around.

The state expects prison populations to continue to increase, but it doesn't have the money to build new prisons. That's where private facilities come into play, said Rep. Brad Young, R-Lamar.

"Private prisons will play an important part and probably a continuing expansion of a partnership with the state in doing what's necessary for public safety," said Young, JBC chairman. "We don't have the money set aside for capital construction of additional prisons. I've been telling people that probably at least every three or four years there has to be an additional prison with at least a capacity of 2,000 prisoners. When we're looking at lack of construction dollars for that, there'll be more demand for private prisons in this state."

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