COLORADO PRISON WATCH

Trouble behind bars

July 3, 2000 -- Colorado renews contract with Burlington prison facing continued problems

By Carla Crowder Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer

----------------------------------------------------------------- Sex scandals, a drug death and rioting over soda did not stop the state of Colorado from renewing its contract with a chronically understaffed private prison on the Eastern Plains.

The state Department of Corrections and the legislature also agreed to pay the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America a higher rate, $53.33 per day per prisoner, a 2 percent increase over last year's bill.

New contracts took effect Saturday, enabling the state to keep housing prisoners at the Kit Carson Correctional Center. Located in the isolated farm town of Burlington, the prison has been plagued in recent months by lawsuits from ex-employees, high turnover and security breaches, including the marriage of an employee to an inmate. But these kinds of troubles crop up in state-run prisons as well, officials pointed out Friday.

"It's hard for people to understand, but this is prison business," said Department of Corrections Deputy Director Jerry Gasko. "Things happen in prison."

Gov. Bill Owens is a staunch supporter of private prisons. He believes they are cheaper to run and provide local communities with property tax revenues not available from state prisons. "Kit Carson's problems have been experienced by public facilities," said Owens press secretary Dick Wadhams. "They are not confined to private facilities."

Contracts also were renewed with three other for-profit lockups. One, the Huerfano County Correctional Center, also run by Corrections Corporation of America, is the site of a federal inmate abuse investigation. Last year, the Denver Rocky Mountain News reported a pattern of shortcomings at the Burlington prison inmate-guard affairs, a felon hired as a guard, high turnover resulting in dozens of lingering vacancies.

Corrections Department officials called the situation "intolerable," and said state monitors were clamping down on prison management. "We're monitoring real heavy, and I think our monitoring unit does a great job," Gasko said Friday. "In terms of what was happening a year ago, last August and September, there's nothing like that going on."

Since last summer, employees lost control over a pod of 88 inmates in December when a squabble over a pilfered soda escalated into a riot. In January, a prisoner whose stepdaughter works as a correctional officer at Kit Carson died of a heroin overdose there. And in March, the prison lacked the minimum number of guards to safely run an overnight shift when state monitors stopped in to check. A prison captain blamed for the shortage lost his temper and destroyed the metal detector at the facility's entrance as he abruptly quit. The riot occurred Dec. 2. CCA had turned off soda machines because inmates were stealing tokens for them, and prison managers could not figure out how. A guard confronted an inmate who had a soda, and chaos ensued. Some prisoners shoved a cola machine through a door, broke the locks and nearly gained access to an outer room. Six prisoners were charged with rioting, but those charges were dropped when the judge strongly questioned the prison staff's handling of the incident. The judge dropped three of the cases early on, saying prosecutors couldn't even show probable cause. The inmates charged with rioting simply were trying to avoid a barrage of tear gas, he told prosecutors and CCA officials. Neither CCA nor the state Department of Corrections publicized the event. Generally, serious disturbances at state prisons are reported.

Guards said they had to bail out of the housing unit for their own safety, and shoved furniture against the broken door to prevent the uproar from spilling into other sections of the prison. Supervisors lobbed tear gas containers into the unit. Other than a guard who needed medical attention for an allergic reaction to the tear gas, no was injured.

CCA was not required to reimburse local governments for court costs. "Basically, the bottom line is, the taxpayers are funding all of it," said District Attorney Mark Adams, whose jurisdiction covers Burlington.

CCA spokeswoman Susan Hart pointed out that while the county did not seek reimbursement, "We paid over $837,000 last year in Kit Carson County property taxes."

A month and a half after the riot, prisoner Michael Schrecongost, 46, died of a heroin overdose in his cell. Schrecongost had a history of drug abuse before serving time for kidnapping and sexual assault.

Prison managers did not learn that guard Robin Turman was his stepdaughter until after his death, said Hart. Turman kept her job as a correctional officer, and still works at Kit Carson, Hart said. Investigators remain baffled about the source of the heroin, but it was never linked to Turman. "She didn't interact with him. She was not posted to that unit," Hart said, adding that Turman's bosses praise her as a hardworking professional. Turman did not return calls for comment.

State prisons require employees to report relatives in the prison system, and the state does not allow both in the same prison, Gasko said. As for the staff shortages, Gasko said the March inspection was an isolated incident. "I know how much our people are checking them. They show up unannounced. I feel very comfortable that we're on top of their issues," he said.

The number of prisoners at Kit Carson has shrunk from 759 last July to 309 currently, in part because of the prison's struggle to keep employees. Also, a new state prison opened this year in Sterling and the corrections department has transferred inmates there from private lockups. Sterling's opening siphoned inmates from all four private prisons.

Colorado houses 1,672 prisons in private lockups, 63 percent less than last July, according to figures provided by Lou Archuleta, head of the department's private prison monitoring unit.

Owens, however, has said he wants to increase the state's reliance on private prisons. This year's fluctuations do not represent a departure from the governor's plans. "His commitment to private prisons remains very strong," Wadhams said. "The long-term projection is we will still need these private facilities."

Contact Carla Crowder at (303) 892-2742 or crowderc@RockyMountainNews.com.

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