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Colorado DOC Report: CCA At Fault for Crowley Uprising

by Matthew T. Clarke

On October 12, 2004, the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) issued an extensive, 179-page After Action Report on the July 20, 2004, riot at the Crowley County Correctional Facility (CCCF) which is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The report places most of the blame on CCA, citing understaffing, inexperienced staff, lack of staff training, and a delayed response to the initial prisoner disturbance as the main reasons the relatively minor disturbance grew into a major riot.

The most important recommendations in the report for CCCF are improved emergency plans and increased emergency procedures training, clarification of lines of authority and command structure, additional authority for local administrators, improving relationships with local law enforcement, renovating cells using more resilient construction materials, improving staffing, and reporting staff shortages to the DOC. Also recommended was more private prison monitors and giving the DOC the ability to make private prisons comply with Colorado DOC standards.

There were only 33 guards at the prison the day of the riot. This represents only one guard for every 33 of the prison's 1,122 prisoners and contrasts strongly with the DOC's ratio of one guard for every five prisoners. But it is also key to profit maximization for private, for profit companies like CCA, and thus unlikely to change.

The staff that was at the prison had no emergency procedures to follow as no emergency response plan had been developed. CCCF suffered from high turnover rates and several of the guards there had only been on the job a couple of days. Emergency drills were rare and very few staff members were part of an emergency response team.

The report depicts a riot that need not have been. Guards were aware of prisoners' grievances and had reported them and the growing unrest to the prison's administration. Nothing was done. The DOC's Private Prison Monitors (PPM) had informed CCA of the problems that led to the prisoner's grievances and lack of emergency preparedness at CCCF. Nothing was done. Prisoners had also reported their grievances to the administration using the prison's grievance system. Nothing was done. At 7:30 p.m. on July 20, 2004, prisoners, angered by a perceived excessive use of force, assembled on the recreation yard and refused to return to their cells, demanding to speak to the warden about their grievances. Nothing was done. When the disturbance progressed to violence, DOC monitors told CCA staff to deploy tear gas to drive the prisoners from the yard. Nothing was done. Within an hour, a full-scale riot was in progress.

The prisoners' grievances included excessive use of force by staff, food that was lacking in quantity and quality and did not follow DOC's mandatory menu, a lack of religious or medical meals, problems with the pricing and availability of items at the prison's canteen, problems getting money into prisoner's canteen accounts, excessive telephone charges, problems receiving medical treatment and medication, a lack of response to prisoner's written grievances, and a disparity in the treatment of prisoners from Colorado and those from Washington (who were paid much more for the same work and allowed more property). The PPM had reported all of these problems independently during the six months prior to the riot. The PPM also reported problems in tracking prison gang members, lack of emergency plans, poor Emergency Response Team and Escape Team staffing and training, and paperwork deficiencies. CCCF failed to address or correct those deficiencies. [Editor's Note: In a sense of déjà vu all over again, Washington prisoners had rioted at the same prison, for the same reasons in 1999 when it was run by the Correctional Services Corporation, another for profit prison company. See PLN, Jun. 1999. Apparently little has changed in the interim.]

On May 15, 2004, CCCF supervisory staff received a written report from a guard who reported a Wyoming prisoner stating that a riot was planned for July 5, 2004, when the second group of prisoners from Washington were scheduled to arrive. A second guard's report dated July 5, 2004, revealed an informant's communication that a group of Washington prisoners planned to take a guard hostage. An undated third report indicated a guard overhearing prisoners taking about "getting even" and "fighting it out" in Unit C.

When the disturbance began, with prisoners demanding to talk to the warden, a Captain denied their request. As the prisoners became unruly, guards retreated from the recreation yard, allowing the cycle of violence to expand unchecked. As the unsupervised prisoners became bolder, guards abandoned their cellblock control pickets. When told by the PPM to use gas to disperse the prisoners, CCCF Warden Brent Crouse, who has since been reassigned by CCA, said he had to wait for permission from CCA corporate headquarters. This delayed the beginning of riot countermeasures until around 9:00 p.m., 90 minutes after the riot started.

The expansion of the riot from the recreation yard began when prisoners decided to free from administrative segregation the prisoner who had earlier been the perceived victim of a guard's excessive use of force. The prisoners used easily-available weight bars to smash walls and doors in the cinderblock cellblocks. Wooden door cells were set on fire. The ease of destruction of the flimsily-built private prison fueled the prisoners to greater vandalistic urges. They broke through to control pickets and destroyed the electronic control panels. They gained access to the rooftops through the guard's emergency exit hatches that had not been secured after the guards fled to the rooftops. On the rooftops, they destroyed air handling equipment. In the cellblocks, they destroyed furnishings and flooded the areas. On the yard, they made bonfires of combustible items.

Prisoners broke into case managers' files which were located in the cell blocks. They sought to identify snitches and sex offenders to target them for beatings. One prisoner was beat and stabbed nearly to death.

The response to the nascent riot was abysmal. As soon as the prisoners on the recreation yard became the least bit unruly, the guards were ordered to retreat, leaving the prisoners to their own devices. Their own devices soon included breaking into cellblocks where the guards were again ordered to retreat, abandoning their posts and control pickets. According to the report, CCA personnel never took the initiative at quelling the disturbance. Instead, the CCCF Special Operations Response Team (SORT) were ordered to wait hours for the arrival of Colorado DOC SORT teams. Even when DOC SORT arrived, they were delayed by indecision among CCCF administrators. Finally, Colordo DOC officials went from advising to de facto operational control, beginning the nightlong process of restoring government control to a prison in full riot.

After control was restored, for several hours CCCF medical personnel failed to assist DOC medical personnel in examining and treating prisoners. And medical treatment was needed. According to the report, those seeking to quell the riot expended 120 rounds of 00 buckshot, 143 rounds of 7½ gauge birdshot, 50 shotgun slugs, 336 rounds of 12 gauge high-velocity rubber pellets, six 12 gauge bean bag rounds, ten 37 mm bean bag rounds, twenty-two 60 caliber stinger rounds, 4 CS [military grade tear gas] Triple Chasers, 2 CS grenades, 2 CN [military weapons-grade gas] grenades, 2 smoke grenades, 2 liters of OC [pepper gas concentrate] for Spray Jet, 11 MK-4 10% pepper spray canisters, 12 MK-4 5.5% pepper foggers, and 3,100 flex cuffs. Many prisoners complained of injuries caused by the riot-suppression weapons.

The prison was still locked down when the report was presented to Colorado Governor Bill Owens. The State of Colorado had presented CCA with a $385,624.95 bill for riot-suppression-related reimbursable expenses. Even if that is paid, Colorado taxpayers will end up footing a bill for the four CCA private prisons in that state. In addition to paying the current private prison monitor $3,650 a month, Governor Owens asked that the DOC's budget be increased by about $2.1 million, largely to hire five new Inspector General's Office private prison inspectors and two more private prison monitors. The CCCF riot is being cited as the reason these additional employees are needed.

CCCF's sordid history shows an additional cost of private prisons as a former head of security at CCCF was terminated by Dominion Correctional Services for alleged sexual misconduct when Dominion ran CCCF. Another former Dominion CCCF security chief, Ronald McCall, has been accused of sexual misconduct with employees in court. This shows that poorly trained personnel with little oversight, as is common in the private prison industry, can cause other harm as well as prison riots. The Colorado DOC report is available at

Sources: DOC After Action Report, Denver Chieftan, Chyenne Star-Tribune.

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