Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Torture Pays Off at Pennies on the Dollar

By Pamela Clifton
The prison staff was warned by the inmates, hours, days, and weeks prior to the explosion of anger on the prison yard that something bad was going to happen.  No one in charge did anything about it.  In July of 2004 a riot broke out in prison owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and it was their fault that it happened.  

At least that’s what the end result of the lawsuit against CCA states.

In 1998, Dominion Corrections built a prison in Crowley County, Colorado and started leasing space to Colorado to help with our overflow of prisoners.  Colorado didn’t have enough prisoners to fill Crowley County Correctional Facility (CCCF) and Dominion decided to backfill those empty beds with prisoners from Washington State.  That decision didn’t go over too well with the prisoners from Colorado or Washington and in 1999 there was a riot.

Dominion eventually backed out of their deal with Washington State and those prisoners were returned home and CCCF was put up for sale and purchased by CCA.   CCA had big plans for their prison on the plains of Eastern Colorado.  First in line was to increase capacity from 1,000 inmates to 1,800; although they weren’t planning on adding additional recreation, security or programming, just beds.  Two more housing units were constructed and as soon as the first one was finished CCA was back on the phone with Washington State.  They signed a deal that would move three hundred prisoners back to Colorado in batches of 100 at a time.

Attorney Bill Trine and former prisoner Vance Adams
The big problem with mixing inmates from different states is that each population is governed by the state in which they were convicted.  For example, Washington state law requires prisoners to be paid $3.00 a day for work.  Colorado pays 60 cents a day.  Colorado prisoners were upset because pay was unequal even though they were all doing the same work.  Washington inmates got the new housing unit with big screen TV’s and new amenities.  Washington prisoners were upset and most of their issues focused on the fact that they were thousands of miles away from home, the cost of phone calls was exorbitant, they weren’t allowed to smoke in Colorado (which was allowed in Washington state prisons) and they weren’t afforded other privileges here that they had at home.

It was a recipe for disaster and disaster finally struck on July 20, 2004 when a Corrections Officer ordered an 18 year old African American man from Washington State to do something and the young man refused.  The CO body-slammed the kid, handcuffed him and dragged him through the yard, in front of all of his fellow inmates to place him in “the hole”.  While still in the yard, he resisted and the guards attacked the young man, pummeling and kicking him in front of other inmates.  Grumblings started on the yard that morning, and the staff were informed, throughout that day, that the Washington inmates were going to “go off”. 

At 5:00 that night, the executive staff just went home.  The Captain in charge held an impromptu meeting in the yard control center for all the corrections staff that would be working that night.  Three officers asked if they could just keep the prisoners locked down for the night until the tensions were relieved and the Captain said that would be unnecessary and at 7:02 he released the prisoners to the yard. 

On that night there were 1,122 inmates in the facility, and they had access to two separate yards that weren’t separately secured from one other.  There were a total of 47 employees, eight of which were new hires to watch over that entire population. 

After being released to the yard, a group of Washington inmates started to demand to speak with  a supervisor. They wanted their friend out of Segregation and they wanted their grievances to be heard.  Since all the executive staff had left for the day there wasn’t anyone there with the authority to do anything to help them and the attitudes quickly escalated.  Documents and interviews obtained during the investigation prove that the staff were untrained as to how to handle a disturbance.  Guards were told by their superiors to evacuate, from the yard and from their units.  Two officers were accidently left behind and they hid in a cell and a female librarian was locked in the library with 37 inmates who did not participate in the riot.

Mayhem was the next step.  The inmates started destroying everything that they could and it took over three hours for DOC to even attempt to respond.  During that time nineteen inmates were brutally assaulted, and the shoddily-constructed prison was mangled.   Fires were burning, windows were smashed, and the units were rendered unusable because of the massive amounts of destruction. 

Nolin Renfrow, Director of Prisons for the Colorado Department of Corrections at the time, called twice from the road on his way to Crowley and asked the warden if they had deployed gas. The warden said that they were waiting for confirmation from their head office in Tennessee that it was okay to use the gas.  That confirmation never came.  Special Operations Response Teams (SORT) finally arrived by 10:30 but by then the damage to people and property was extensive.  SORT came in and deployed rubber bullets and gas.  They didn’t attempt to figure out who was a rioter and who wasn’t and they quickly subdued all the inmates. 

That’s when the real terror began.  The SORT team shackled every man in CCCF and forced them to lie down in six inches of a mixture of sewage, blood and water, and then they dragged them to the yard where they were forced to lie down for nearly seven hours.  Once the cuffs were on, guards refused to loosen them or take them off.  When people asked to be able to use the bathroom, the guards stood them against the wall and forced them to urinate and defecate on themselves because they would not loosen their shackles.

Afterwards, the prison was on lockdown status for nearly six months. For the first thirty days no one was allowed to communicate with anyone, the guards threw bologna sandwiches onto the floor of their cells for meals, and they were only allowed out of the cell for an hour a day.

Vance Adams, a plaintiff named in the lawsuit, was in his cell when the riot started.  He was in prison for drug related charges, but he had a special skill.  Vance knew sign language.  So he lived with an inmate who was deaf.   This way Vance could communicate what was going on during their daily routine.  On the night of the riot, SORT officer’s came into Vance’s cell and ordered them both to the floor, Vance was hurriedly trying to communicate what the SORT team wanted them to do but the guards took issue because they thought Vance was taking too long and they kicked them both to the ground, face down in six inches of sewage and then shackled them and drug them out to the yard.  Vance was no longer able to communicate with his cell mate because his hands were tied behind his back. 

Vance was asked if he was satisfied with the outcome of the lawsuit. 

“I would have rather not got any money, they got away with pennies on the dollar for what they did to us.  I would rather that CCA was forced to sell their prisons back to the state of Colorado, the state is the one that should take care of their prisoners, not the private prisons.”

Horrors like this played themselves out in the Crowley prison for hundreds of people.

After eight years of litigation, a lawsuit brought by more than 200 inmates injured in the July 2004 Crowley prison riot has been settled.  As a result of the overwhelming evidence produced, CCA chose to settle the claims, rather than face the 25 week jury trial scheduled to start in March of 2013.  Each inmate received a small sum depending on the extent of their injuries.  Total cost to CCA?  Only $600,000.  The smallest award was for $1200 and the largest being about $17,000.  With so many plantiffs and no way to try each case separately, plaintiff's counsel chose to accept the agreement as long as there was no confidentiality agreement, rather than risk a mistrial or the years it would take to fight off appeals after they won.  

CCJRC is deeply grateful to Bill Trine and Trine & Metcalf, P.C. for taking on this case and seeking justice for the people who were traumatized at the hands of those who were contracted to watch over them.

1 comment:

Chuck Armsbury said...

Congratulations to all who persevered for 8 years. I live/work in the region with a CCA prison near Boise, Idaho, where some similar circumstances have occurred. Mr. Adams is right: get rid of the profit motive in holding people; compel the state to do what it should. Chuck Armsbury, www.november.org/