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Disarray in Colorado: Prisoners Hurt by Host of Problems

Society is dynamic, in a state of con-stant flux where change is the only constant, but recent changes in Colorado are turning up the pressure in Colorado's prison system. Prisoner pay has been nearly eliminated while hygiene items are not provided. Prisoner phone rates are now in the hands of prison officials who can raise a quick buck at will by raising phone rates. The maximum possible parole setback has been extended to five years to further reduce the scant number of prisoners paroled. And overwhelming growth in the face of massive state fiscal troubles and a slashed prison budget has resulted in some prisoner programs eliminated, staff laid off and positions left unfilled, while another unneeded supermax begins construction.

Prisoner Pay

The state fiscal crisis has reached the point that not only has the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) eliminated dispensing prisoner necessities (except for one roll of toilet paper per week in some areas), the General Assembly has ordered the CDOC to cut prisoner pay to save a paltry $1.4 million (or 0.298%) of an otherwise $469,771,508 budget. The previous multi-tiered pay system of $.28 per day for unassigned prisoners and $0.63, 1.03, 1.53, and 2.03 per day for assigned prisoners was cut effective July 1, 2003, to $.23 per day for unassigned and $.60 per day for assigned prisoners.

A prisoner working the standard 20-day work month earns only $12.00. From this, the CDOC deducts 20% for restitution and child support leaving $9.60 to purchase everything, including hygiene items, over-the-counter medications, writing materials, postage, medical co-payments ($3.00 or a week's pay for a doctor, $.50 for a physician's assistant or nurse practitioner) and debit phone calls (far more expensive collect calls can also be made).

Prisoners pay full street prices for canteen items. About $2 million in canteen revenue has funded recreation and education programs. Reduced prisoner pay will result in more program cuts. Already cut are some GED preparatory classes and vocational programs. The CDOC says there are no plans to reduce canteen prices but several common items have been quietly reduced by a few cents.

The prisoner response to this fiscal folly began at 3:00 a.m. on July 1, 2003, the date the pay change went into effect. Kitchen workers in the high security side of the Sterling Correctional Facility (SCF), the first prisoners to report to work, refused to leave their cell houses. Two more shifts refused to work and over 1,100 medium and higher security prisoners were locked down. The lower security side of SCF (minimum-restrictive and lower) was not locked down but nearly half the kitchen workers refused to work the noon shift and were moved to segregation. News reports indicate 16 SCF prisoners were transferred to the state's supermax (CSP). The SCF lockdown was slowly lifted after one week. This was the first Colorado prisoner work strike since 1978.

The medium security Arkansas Valley Corrections Facility (AVCF) in Crowley, Colorado, reportedly segregated 23 kitchen workers who refused to work over pay cuts and transferred them to CSP. Reports about the remaining 20 state prisons indicate no other serious disturbances. Most prisons had close calls as kitchen and other workers agonized over the decision to strike or not. At the eleventh hour they relented to avoid the inevitable retaliation.

The prison system was prepared for such a response after many informants stepped forward beforehand. Guards conducted emergency drills to quell potential unrest. A video was played wherein Director of Prisons Nolan Renfrow explained the impetus behind the pay cuts and then Regional Director Gene Atherton threatened all prisoners who may cause disruption. Teachers were on standby and at SCF were called in to cook when the strike began.

At the Fremont Correctional Facility (FCF), kitchen workers hung on the fringe of unrest for days only to face belligerent and condescending kitchen guards, prompting five of seven cooks to quit. (FCF was also placed on full lockdown status on July 1 but for a murder unrelated to the pay cuts. Gene Maes, 38, was stabbed on the second tier of a three tier cell house, jumped over the railing to the ground floor, staggering the length of the cell house leaving a trail of blood before collapsing in the hallway. He died a short time later. Except for cell house 8 where the incident occurred, the lockdown was lifted in a couple of hours. Cell house 8 remained locked down for two days.)

Kara Gotsch, Public Policy Coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., told the Rocky Mountain News that "there is no reason you shouldn't have employment opportunities on the inside just as you do on the outside. These prisoners are providing a service. We shouldn't be condoning slave labor." Gotsch says that pay decreases will be costly over time and makes the logical connection between pay cuts and reduced program funds (from canteen profits and budget cuts) leading to fewer programs, less rehabilitation, and thus higher recidivism feeding a viscious cycle with only costly and destructive ends. "States essentially have done this to themselves," Gotsch says.

Prisoner Phones

Effective July 1, 2003, State Senate Bill 03-303 eliminated all Public Utility Commission (PUC) authority to "regulate telephone or telecommunications service" at penal institutions and placed it in the hands of the CDOC. In a time of a severe state fiscal crisis the CDOC is now free to generate even more income beyond the millions currently sucked from prisoners and their families by simply raising the phone rates without any oversight.

As of December 1, 2001, the date of the last published debit phone rates, local debit calls were $.20 per minute for day rates and $.11 per minute for evening rates with a $1.00 surcharge per call. Calls cannot exceed 20 minutes then the process must be repeated. For debit calls to another calling area within the state and to other states at any time the rate is $.19 per minute with a $1.25 surcharge. Collect calls are significantly higher. Few calls are local because most prisons are in rural areas far from prisoners' home urban areas.

Interestingly, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the PUC had no jurisdiction over the CDOC phone system then in use because the CDOC was not a telephone corporation and was not providing telecommunications services. Moreover, the prisoner phone system constituted customer premise equipment preempted from state regulation by federal law. Today's system is hardly different and just as uncontrolled and unchecked. See: Powell v. Colorado Public Utilities Commission, 956 P.2d 608 (Colo. 1998) [PLN Nov. 1998].

Parole Setbacks

State Senate Bill 03-097 raised the maximum parole setback to five years for class 1 and 2 felonies that are also crimes of violence. In Colorado, most class 1 and 2 felonies are defined as crimes of violence and class 1 felonies have been ineligible for parole for over a decade. This law clearly targets only older lifers (pre-1991) and class 2 felonies and applies to all parole denials after June 30, 2003. The previous maximum parole setback was three years, raised in 1994 from the previous one year. Under the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions of California Department of Corrections v. Morales, 115 S.Ct. 1597 (1995) [PLN July 1995] and Garner v. Jones, 120 S.Ct. 1362 (2000) [PLN June 2000] the retroactive application of this law is not ex post facto. Now hundreds of prisoners who have waited decades for their chance at yearly parole opportunity will see the board only twice a decade.

Overwhelming Growth and Budget Cuts

These changes will have only a negative impact on a prison system that is in a three-way tie with Connecticut and Minnesota as the third fastest-growing prison system in the country. While the national prison population growth was 2.6% in 2002,

Colorado's grew by 7.9%, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. Half the male prisoners and three quarters of the female prisoners in Colorado are serving time for non-violent offenses, a fifth for drug offenses. More than half of Colorado's nearly 19,000 prisoners are eligible for parole (not surprising when the 2002 parole rate was 1.6% of first-time applicants). Meanwhile, Colorado ranked last in the nation in child vaccination rates.

Despite the rampant growth caused by get-tough-on-crime policies used as political platforms dating to the 1980s and the parole board's refusal to parole most applicants, the state fiscal crisis has led to staff layoffs and left vacant positions unfilled. As the 2002-03 fiscal year neared its June 30 end, the CDOC eliminated approximately 150 positions and left 800 positions vacant in a 5,800 employee workforce. Several dozen faced last minute layoffs, 155 took early retirement, and many were forced to change positions, some of which included demotions, and transfers to another prison over 50 miles away.

In response to these changes, 51 CDOC employees filed for an injunction to prevent the layoffs and transfers. The suit claimed the layoffs targeted mostly senior staff over age 40, those with years of experience and higher pay grades, or those known as whistle-blowers, grievance filers, or who take medical leave. In July, 2003, a state district judge ruled he had no jurisdiction to hear the complaint and the employees would have to resort to the State Personnel Board to air their grievances.

Governor Bill Owens defended the layoffs and vacancies and said neither staff nor public safety would be at risk in prisons housing dangerous criminals. He notably did not mention the effect on the safety of the prisoners incarcerated in Colorado's overcrowded and understaffed prisons. At least one family disagrees with Governor Owens and blames their son's death on the CDOC staff shortages. Eric Autobee, a kitchen guard at the high security Limon Correctional Facility (LCF) was killed on October 18, 2002 by Edward Montour. Autobee's father is suing the CDOC for wrongful death.

Despite the fiscal crisis, Colorado continues to build more prisons with a new $103 million supermax (CSP II) already in the bidding process to be located adjacent to the current CSP supermax. According to a 2000 report by the Criminal Justice Institute, Colorado already keeps 7.5% of its population slammed down in administrative segregation while the national average is 3.3%.

It costs nearly $25,000 annually to keep one person locked up but only $3,000 annually for parole. With this $22,000 annual savings per paroled prisoner Colorado could realize a savings of up to $200 million by paroling prisoners currently eligible. This would eliminate the need for a new supermax and some current facilities thus saving an additional $103 million and relieving the CDOC's budget, prisoner pay and staffing crises. The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) has filed suit to halt construction of CSP II. As Stephen Raher of the CCJRC aptly stated: "Colorado's love affair with prisons is causing our criminal justice system to collapse under its own weight, and it is dragging the rest of the state with it."

Additional Sources: The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, The Pueblo Chieftain, Inside Justice

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