The newest article from Alan on our prison system appears in this weeks Westword. This time he takes on Cheyenne Mountain.
By Alan Prendergast
published: November 06, 2008
Jay Lewis assumes the position. He slouches, arms folded across his chest, knee bent and foot braced on the wall behind him. He looks like your typical green-tunic-clad felon, lazily taking in the passing show at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center, a 750-bed private prison in Colorado Springs.
"He's jailin'," explains fellow inmate Charles Cook. "That's something we try to deter. If I saw Mr. Lewis doing that for real, I'd pull him up on that and tell him that he's going back to his old behaviors."
Lewis straightens up immediately. "Thank you," he says. "I'll get right on top of that."
The demonstration is neatly scripted, like a lot of interactions among inmates at CMRC. But that seems to be part of the appeal of the place to prisoners like Cook and Lewis; it's a new script for convicts who've found that the old ways haven't gotten them anywhere they want to be. At CMRC, the trappings and the terminology defy expectation. Inmates are known as "residents" and call each other "mister"; the warden is the "director." Staffers dress like corporate executives and motivational coaches rather than prison guards. The living units feature spartan eight- and twelve-man rooms with bunk beds rather than barred cells. Huge signs line the corridors, exhorting residents in an almost Orwellian pitch:
IF YOU DON'T LIKE YOURSELF CHANGE
MAKE BETTER DECISIONS
EXAMINE YOUR MOTIVES
ANGER IS ONE LETTER AWAY FROM DANGER
Although classified as a medium-security prison, the facility is a radical departure from the typical lockup operated by the Colorado Department of Corrections. Most of CMRC's residents are nearing the end of their sentences and are likely to be paroled soon; about 20 percent are parole violators getting a little attitude adjustment before hitting the streets again. Under a DOC contract that pays the private operators $52 per head per day, the facility tries to prepare inmates for release by offering basic education, job-hunting and computer skills, drug treatment programs and classes in what could loosely be described as "lifestyle change" — efforts to challenge well-established prison culture by, for example, having inmates confront each other over unacceptable behavior.
There are eighteen possible levels of "intervention" that residents and staff can try, Cook explains, before a misbehaving resident might get thrown into the hole or out of the program. His mild rebuke of Lewis is known as a verbal pull-up, and the only right response to a pull-up is thank you, I'll get right on that. If a resident provides a less compliant answer, along the lines of get your face out of my business before I shank your sorry ass, stronger measures are taken. The offender might have to face his peers in a staff-run meeting, standing in a spot in the middle of the room marked by the outline of two large red feet.
"A lot of guys come here with a sense of closed-mindedness," Cook says. "We're just trying to open them up. There's no chain of command among residents, but there is a line of communication. We have static groups, we have hot seats, we have confrontation groups. Staff are present and overseeing things, but a great deal of it is actually facilitated by the residents."
Like many in his unit, Cook is a firm believer in the CMRC approach. He points proudly to his name listed as unit coordinator at the top of a "structure board," delineating the various lines of communication within his pod. He has been at the prison since February and expects it might be another year before he makes parole. "This is how I want to be when I'm released," he says. "I don't want to go back to DOC and get into a situation where I have to abide by that convict mentality."
Some residents can be almost evangelistic about the program, which they hope will better their chances of being granted an early parole. Serving a ten-year stretch for assault and burglary of a Taco Bell, Eric Erickson has been turned down by the state parole board three times already. He calls his arrival at CMRC three months ago "a huge blessing."
"It's not like DOC, where you can sleep and do nothing all day," he says. "At 6 a.m., it's feet on the floor for everyone. I've seen some good, positive things since I've been here. The staff are respectful and helpful, and I've seen this program help other inmates get out."
But not every journey through CMRC has been so positive. Regular visits by DOC monitors have turned up a slew of management and operational blunders at the prison since it opened three years ago. Documents obtained by Westword show a history of staff shortages and high turnover, inadequate training and security lapses, assaults and gang activity, and several instances of female staffers being fired for fraternization or even sexual relationships with residents. And some inmates who have completed the program claim the place has more problems with violence, contraband and bogus classes than the inspection reports suggest.
"It's a joke," says Douglas Bullard, a 45-year-old parolee who left CMRC in September. "The only time they had people doing what they were supposed to do was when the director was coming through with his cronies. Other than that, it's a free-for-all. You got kids running amok. You got people climbing around in the ceilings, breaking into offices and stealing stuff. You got booze, you got drugs, you got guys smoking in the bathroom. You're supposed to be confronted by other inmates, but the staff are the only ones who are doing it."
"There is very little control," adds Cecil Mercer, who left CMRC last summer after eleven months. "Every day someone gets beat down, and most of the time it's five or six on one. The last five or six months there, I did not feel safe."
Kevin Estep, CMRC's third director since it opened in 2005, insists that the situation has improved markedly since he arrived last spring and that inmates' stories about chronic assaults are greatly exaggerated. "I've heard the same things you've heard," he says. "But we haven't had a serious assault since I've been here. We do have fights, and we take those very seriously, but I've seen prisons that are much worse than what we have."
Officials at Community Education Centers, the New Jersey-based company that runs CMRC and other re-entry and halfway house programs in 22 states, acknowledge some "glitches" in the early phases of the Colorado Springs operation but point to the company's track record elsewhere. Research studies tracking ex-cons who've been through CEC facilities indicate that they are less likely to commit additional crimes than other parolees. "We've had some growing pains," says CEC senior vice president William Palatucci. "It hasn't been a perfect start-up, by any means. But we have a great deal of confidence in our model and the direction that we're heading."