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Colorado: Crowley/CCA from the inside. Volume 4, Issue 5, November 2004
Dealing with the Devil:
Colorado's Private Prison Experience

The July 2004 disturbance at the Crowley County Correctional Facility is only the latest in a series of disturbances involving Colorado prisoners in private prisons. Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) facilities, on the other hand, seem to better manage their populations and avoid these problems. The disturbances are a cause for concern because of the risk to staff, prisoner, and public life and limb. We have been lucky so far, but it is only a matter of time before there is a disturbance on a par with that of Attica or the Santa Fe riots. Even worse, there may be a mass escape in a small town ill- equipped to handle dozens of escaped desperados.

A mass escape could happen. In July 1998, six pr1soners--including five murderers– escaped from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) prison in Youngstown, Ohio and ran through town, pursued by CCA officers who neglected to notify local authorities. A review of news reports showed that there were at least 37 escapes from secure private prisons in 1999. The New York state Department of Correctional Services, which has a prisoner population roughly equal to that of the private prisons, had only eight escapes from secure facilities between 1995 and 1999.

In the recent Crowley County disturbance, hundreds of prisoners rioted. A mere

33 staff members were on duty. Only the prisoners' lack of desire and leadership prevented them from swarming the fence and escaping. A prisoner who was there, Robert Horn, was quoted by the Denver Post as saying, "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."Such an event has never occurred in a CDOC facility.

The following list of disturbances involving Colorado prisoners in private facilities illustrates that these problems are endemic to private prisons.

This list is not all-inclusive; there may be other incidents which have been overlooked. Notably missing are the many disturbances which occurred in the private prisons in Texas.

October 1994. In the Great Potato Riot of 1994, more than one hundred Puerto Rican and Colorado prisoners rioted at the Prairie Correctional Facility (PCF) in Appleton, Minnesota. The Puerto Rican prisoners protested the recent dietary change from beans and rice to meat and potatoes. A few hours before the riot, several Puerto Rican prisoners, escorted by a correctional officer, went from living unit to living unit drumming up support for their protest.

Despite these warning signs, the facility was apparently caught completely off- guard by the disturbance and the prisoners rampaged for several hours before being quelled by tear gas and the facility's emergency response team, assisted by outside agencies.

September 1995. Five hundred PCF prisoners staged a food strike in which they refused to eat the private prison's food for three days. The strike protested the poor quality and small portions of the food. Food service was a problem at the PCF for the entire time Colorado prisoners were housed there.

February 1997. Sixty-five PCF prisoners refused to lock down at the evening count. Upset over having to purchase toilet paper and other sundries that had been previously supplied, the prisoners barricaded themselves in their living unit. After a stand-off lasting over five hours, guards assaulted the prisoners with tear gas and "stinger"4 munitions. One prisoner was injured by shrapnel from an exploding tear gas grenade. Three prisoners were transferred to administrative segregation at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City. No guards were injured.

August 1998. Dozens of PCF prisoners rioted in the exercise yard. This riot escalated from an earlier fight in the gym. Guards were aware of the earlier incident, but incorrectly assumed the problem was resolved. Several prisoners were injured, including a shattered jaw and broken ribs. Staff mishandled the riot by opening gates and allowing rioters to mingle, rather than closing gates and compartmentalizing the riot. The tower guard failed to fire a shot; a single shotgun blast into the air would likely have ended the riot. One guard received an eye injury. The facility was locked down for a week. The riot could have been entirely avoided by simply canceling night yard for that one evening.

October 1998. PCF prisoners rioted in a living unit, damaging equipment and furnishings. They had been removed to the empty unit to await transfer back to Colorado and were frustrated by the extremely long wait for transport back.

After fifteen hours of idle waiting, the prisoners were told that the Crowley County Correctional Facility (CCCF) was not ready for them and that they would have to wait until it was ready. They were further told that they could not return to their original housing units because the PCF had filled those beds with Hawaiians. Shortly thereafter, the prisoners rioted and caused extensive damage to the furnishing of the living unit.

November 1998. Fed up with conditions at the new prison, CCCF prisoners initiate a short-lived work strike. There were no injuries. As a result, a few prisoners were transferred back to the CDOC.

December 1998. PCF prisoners rioted in the gym, damaging equipment and furnishings. They armed themselves with softball bats. The prisoners had been placed in the gym to await transfer to Colorado. After five hours of waiting the prisoners were informed that their buses had broken down 150 miles away and that the prisoners would have to wait in the gym for the buses to arrive, however long it took. A short time later, a few of the 79 prisoners rioted, causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage. When the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) arrived and deployed chemical weapons, the prisoners laid down and surrendered, much to the relief of the heavily outnumbered SORT. No guards or prisoners were injured.

March 1999. Eerily foreshadowing the July 2004 riot, Washington, Wyoming, and Colorado prisoners rioted at the CCCF. This riot began in one of the dining rooms by Washington prisoners dissatisfied with the food. Tensions were high at the facility because of poor food, poorly trained guards, and disparate treatment of prisoners. Washington prisoners were paid more than Wyoming prisoners, who were paid more than Colorado prisoners who were expected to work longer and harder than the other two jurisdictions. The CCCF even had different Codes of Penal Discipline for the different groups. A Colorado prisoner would be punished much more harshly than would be a Wyoming prisoner.

CCCF guards attempted to quell the riot with tear gas, but pulled the pin of the gas grenade before opening the living unit door. Unfortunately for the guards, the prisoners had tied the door shut. The grenade detonated in the vestibule. After several botched attempts to enter the unit, CDOC guards arrived at the scene and quelled the riot with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The Washington prisoners were sent back to Washington.

July 1999. After an escape attempt, an assault on a staff member, and rumors of a pistol having been smuggled into the facility, the Kit Carson Correctional Center (KCCC) was locked down for an extensive search. CCA staff were brought in from the Huerfano County Correctional Facility to assist with the shakedown. Water was turned off to the cells for three days. Contrary to KCCC's claims, prisoners were not provided with adequate drinking water. One handcuffed prisoner received a broken wrist while being brutalized by a guard.

No guards were injured.

December 1999. In response to the theft of a large number of pop tokens from the facility canteen, a KCCC guard ordered prisoners to abstain from purchasing soda pop from the vending machines. When prisoners bought pop anyway, the guard threatened to remove the vending machines and, in fact, removed the machines' power cord. The prisoners of one living unit responded by pushing the vending machine through the open door of their unit. The prisoners then refused to lock down for count. KCCC guards deployed chemical munitions, but reportedly failed to open the door before pulling the pin on the tear gas grenade. As a result, the grenade began discharging its contents before the guards could open the door and toss the grenade. When the dust settled, 17 prisoners were taken to segregation, no guards suffered injury, and there was minor property damage.

July 2004 . Hundreds of CCCF prisoners rioted for hours before the CDOC Special Operations Response Teams and Emergency Response Teams subdued the prisoners with chemical weapons. CCCF staff had abandoned the facility to the prisoners, leaving behind a librarian and two guards to fend for themselves.

The prisoners, upset over bad food, disparate treatment, and outright mistreatment, caused massive property damage. Three prisoners were hospitalized, one critically wounded by other prisoners. The facility was locked down for four months and the warden replaced.

In Tutwiler, Mississippi, Colorado prisoners at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility rioted in the exercise yard. The riot stemmed from prisoner frustrations over poor food, lack of medical care and cleaning supplies, overcrowding, and guard brutality. The riot resulted in some property damage.


One wonders why private prisons have such troubles when state prisons do not.

Even when prisoner pay was brutally slashed in July 2003, the CDOC had only a few small, quickly suppressed work strikes. Private prisons have more problems because of staff turnover, poor training, inadequate planning, staff quality, inadequate food, inadequate programs, overcrowding, and mixing of prisoners from different states. These issues have at their root the fundamental principle of private prisons: Profit. The only way for a private prison to turn a profit is to cut costs.


Private prison staff are paid much less than state prison guards. The Crowley County Correctional Facility staff are paid an average of $1,818 a month, while CDOC guards start at $2,774 a month.

Private prison guards are not as well trained as CDOC guards. Training is expensive. With a turnover rate of 45 percent, about twice that of the CDOC, private prison management is reluctant to invest in expensive training for staff members that may not stick around.

Nor are private guards as highly motivated. The people who become private prison guards are as widely varied as any job-seekers, but there are three general classifications that describe most guards. There are those for whom it is just a job, those for whom it is a career, and those for whom it satisfies some psychological need.

In many ways, those for whom it is just a job are the best guards. They usually avoid creating problems with prisoners and increasing tension. Often they perform their jobs well and get along well with staff and prisoners alike. However, they may not be as strongly motivated to risk their own safety. These people usually move on to a different job as soon as they can find one or become too disillusioned to continue.

Career-seekers can raise tensions in a facility with a gung-ho, enforce-every- rule attitude. While they may be more motivated to respond to a crisis, they may also be more likely to cause a crisis with their attitude. These people are likely to seek jobs with the CDOC as soon as possible.

The psychologically damaged seem to cause the most problems through unprofessional and over-zealous behavior. Although they cause problems, they are rarely fired because they usually avoid committing a serious infraction.

These people will never leave their job as long as it satisfies their psychological needs.

There are other private correctional officers who are motivated by their desire to make the world a better place. They are either loved or loathed by staff and prisoners, depending on the observer's world view.

The result is a filtering process whereby the highly motivated guards move on to CDOC or other law enforcement agencies. This leaves private prisons with a poorly motivated, poorly trained staff, peppered with psychologically damaged loose cannons.

When confronted by trouble, private guards usually run away, just as they did at CCCF. The CDOC's spokesperson, Alison Morgan, may characterize the CCCF guards as a "textbook corrections response,"8 but prisoners see it as cowardice. Since guards rule by intimidation, appearance is all. After all, power perceived is power achieved.

CDOC guards, on the other hand, run toward trouble. Just as Iraqi insurgents learned that shooting at one U.S. Marine inevitably results in a devastating counterattack, prisoners know that, just like Marines, CDOC guards run toward trouble. And they don't leave their people behind, as did the CCCF guards.

Staff problems are exacerbated in all facilities when urban youth are placed in rural facilities. Rural staff members simply do not know how to talk to urban youth nor do they understand their culture and vice versa.

Misunderstandings are inevitable and can escalate to tragic levels.


Many of the above disturbances were caused by inadequate food. I spent five years in private prisons, at the PCF and at the KCCC, and I can tell you that the food was of poor quality, poorly prepared, poorly presented (cold and on soiled trays), and poor portions. Food service managers at private prisons are often financially rewarded for coming in under budget and they will squeeze a nickel until the buffalo bellows. During the PCF food strike, we even had the guards on our side because they daily saw the anger and frustration the prisoners felt, and they knew that it could trigger a disturbance. Besides, they ate the food too.

Inspectors rarely see the inadequate rations fed to the prisoners. The prison corporations know when the inspectors are coming and upgrade the menu. The inspectors find a decent meal being served and conclude that the prisoners who have been bitterly complaining about the food are just a bunch of whiners. The only way to catch the corporations at this game is through unannounced, surprise inspections.

When the same company operates both canteen and food service operations, prisoners see a conflict of interest. By serving inadequate portions of poor food, the food service department puts prisoners in the difficult position of either going hungry or purchasing food from the canteen, usually at inflated prices. The corporation benefits from decreased food service costs and from increased canteen sales. Nothing will convince prisoners otherwise--except adequate and decent meals.


Private prison operators reduce medical costs at every opportunity. These reductions risk not only the prisoners' health, but public health as well. If a prisoner were to contract tuberculosis, HIV, or hepatitis while incarcerated, that prisoner will spread the disease when he is released to the community.

In Tennessee, a doctor under contract to CCA managed to squeeze medical costs from $3.07 to $1.48 per prisoner per day. Under the contract's cost-cutting incentives the doctor's annual compensation increased from $95,000 to $190,000. After a lawsuit was filed by the mother of a prisoner who died of sickle cell anemia under the good doctor's "care," a Tennessee federal district judge found that the contract went "too far" and was unconstitutional. The Court held that the contract and CCA's medical policy "violates contemporary standards of decency by giving a physician who provides exclusive medical services to inmates substantial financial incentives to double his income by reducing inmates' necessary medical services." However, only that particular contract was ruled unconstitutional, other incentivized contracts may be acceptable.

Fixing these issues, if possible, will cost the private prison corporations money. As corporations, their raison d'etre is to turn as large a profit as possible. Any CEO who does not return a large profit to the corporation's shareholders will be replaced. CCA, for example, recently replaced its COO, James Seaton, perhaps because of poor returns or perhaps because of the many prison disturbances during his tenure.10 These corporations are far more interested in cutting rather than incurring costs.

There are situations where the public good is not well-served by private corporations. Prison privatization is one of those cases. In this nation's youth, prisons were commonly privately operated. This led to no end of abuse and the practice was abandoned until the mid-1980s. Modern times, technologies, and sensibilities have not changed the dynamics of this conflict between public and private interests.

Religious organizations condemn private prisons. In their 2000 statement on criminal justice, "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration," the U.S.

Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote "The profit motive may lead to reduced efforts to change behaviors, treat substance abuse and offer skills necessary for reintegration into the community." In a 2003 pastoral statement, "Wardens from Wall Street: Prison Privatization," southern Catholic bishops called for an end to private prisons. They wrote, "When prisoners become units from which profit is derived, there is a tendency to see them as commodities rather than as children of God." The United Methodist Church General Conference of 2000 opposed private prisons by a vote of 734-142. The 127th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark condemned private prisons, saying "The industry of warehousing prisoners in private prisons has presented a temptation to those who would profit from the punishment of human beings."

In its After Action Report on the Crowley County riot, the CDOC recommends that the Colorado Legislature "authorize the CDOC Executive Director to take command and compel compliance with recommended policy and procedure in non- emergency situations." Inside Justice respectfully disagrees, having found that the existing contract with the CCCF provides extensive and adequate enforcement power. For example, the contract requires that the CCCF adopt and follow important enumerated CDOC Administrative Regulations. The contract requires the CCCF to fully staff the facility. The contract also provides for audits and inspections, with or without advance notice. If the facility fails to satisfy its duties and obligations, there are remedies available. Implementation of this particular CDOC legislative recommendation will, therefore, have little practical effect on future uprisings.

A Model for the Future

The principal advantage to private prisons is that they can finance new prisons. Corporations such as CCA are able to build prisons with less expense than state agencies. This is particularly advantageous when the state budget is tight, as it is today. However, as we have seen, corporations encounter difficulties when attempting to operate their prisons.

This suggests that the appropriate role for corporations to play in corrections is to finance and build prisons which are then operated by the Colorado Department of Corrections. Inside Justice recommends that any new contracts with private prison corporations be lease arrangements whereby the corporation finances and builds the facility and leases it to the Colorado Department of Corrections, which will staff and operate the facility with state personnel. This model allows the corporation to turn a profit yet provides for higher-quality and safer operations. Prison operations may cost a bit more in the short run, but in the long run, the end product, public safety, will be assured.

Dyer, Joel. The PerRetual Prisoner Machine. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000, p. 205.
Greene, Judith. "Bailing Out the Private Prison Industry." Prison Legal News. May 2002, p. 2.
Mitchell, Kirk and Hughes, Jim. "Prison riot reaction faulted." The Denver Post. August 8, 2004, p. lA.
Concussion or flash-bang grenades incorporating rubber pellets.
KCCC had instituted a policy whereby the prisoners were issued only one roll of toilet tissue per week. The staff member refused to issue an additional roll to a prisoner, who then assaulted the staff member.
Vigil, Karen. "Private Crowley County prison riot still under study." The Pueblo Chieftain. September 21, 2004, p. 7A.
Foster, Dick. "Private prison report." Rocky Mountain News. October 13, 2004, p. 4A.
Vigil, Karen. "DOC says evaluation of prison riot is premature." The Pueblo Chieftain. August 10, 2004, p. 5A.
"CCA Medical Cost-Saving Contract Unconstitutional." Prison Legal News. July 2001, p. 10.
Associated Press. "Private prisons chief announces resignation." The Pueblo Chieftain. August 11, 2004, p. 6B.
Rausch, Fr. John. "Private prisons may help state; they don't much help society." Catholic Anchor. October 8, 2004, p. 5.
Kelley, Carolyn A. "For-profit prisons?" The Pueblo Chieftain. October 17, 2004, p. 3G.
Colorado Department of Corrections. "After Action Report, Inmate Riot: Crowley County Correctional Facility, July 20, 2004." October 1, 2004, p. 67.
Ibid., p. 93, Contract section II.1.E.
Ibid., p. 92, Contract section II.1.A and p. 100, Contract section II.9.Q.
Ibid., p. 95, Contract section 11.6 and p. 109, Contract section III.7.A.
Ibid., p. 110, Contract section III.11.

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