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Uprising by Vermont Prisoners Damages CCA Prison in Kentucky

by Matthew T. Clarke

On September 14, 2004, a prisoner uprising rocked the 816-bed, 88-acre Lee Adjustment Center (LAC), a private prison owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in Lee County, Kentucky.

The Prison

LAC was built in 1990 as a 400-bed, minimum-security prison by a private company under contract with the Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC). In 1999 CCA bought the prison and converted it into an 816-bed medium security prison used to house both KDOC and out-of-state prisoners. Apparently CCA cut costs during the conversion because during the uprising prisoners were able to move freely about the prison by pulling up the interior fences. At the time of the rebellion, it held 376 Kentucky DOC prisoners and 427 prisoners from the Vermont Department of Corrections (VDOC). Kentucky pays CCA $38.44 per prisoner per day while Vermont paid $42.50 per prisoner per day under a 29-month contract involving up to 700 prisoners and up to $29.5 million.

The Uprising

The rebellion began when nine prisoners, five from Kentucky and four from Vermont, attacked a round wooden guard tower in the center of the recreation yard after about 150 prisoners were let out on the yard for recreation at 7:15 p.m. The nine used large concrete ash trays to dislodge wood from the tower's frame. Guards agreed to give prisoners control of the recreation yard and not to fire tear gas onto the yard in exchange for the release of the tower guard. Rioters used wood from the tower to attack the maintenance building, presumably to get at the ladders, wire cutters, axes and other tools stored there to get out of the yard. They also set fire to two dormitories and the administration building while smashing windows, office furnishings, sinks, toilets, furniture and ripping out electrical wiring.

Official timelines differ, but it is clear that the melee lasted from three to four hours and involved up to 100 prisoners. After guards retreated from the central compound, Assistant Warden Donna Stivers paged the 20-man response team CCA is supposed to keep available at all times. Three responded. Six others drifted in over the course of the night.

Meanwhile, the rioters broke into the commissary and distributed food and tobacco to other prisoners. Other prisoners were approaching the perimeter fence. Stivers realized that, with or without the response team, she had to do something. The arrival of 22 members of the state prison riot squad at 10:30 p.m. helped. By then, Stivers had rallied LAC staff to secure about 400 non-rioting prisoners. Pepper spray was used on the unruly prisoners in the yard and, by 11:30 p.m., the rebellion had been quelled. However, by then one 350-man dormitory was damaged beyond immediate use and a great deal of serious damage had occurred in the other buildings. Fortunately, only eight prisoners were injured. The two most seriously injured prisoners had severe cuts to the fingers. No staff was injured.

During the riot's aftermath, it was discovered that two prisoners, Matthew Bennett and James Davis had secured the maintenance building to protect their supervisor, Kris Goldey, and keep the rioters from the tools. Davis explained that Goldey had been an inspiration to the prisoners, shared the Bible with them, and taken an interest in them.

He's more than just a maintenance guy," Davis said. He's somebody that's had a positive influence on me.

Evidently that positive influence was all it took to make Davis and Bennett willing to arm themselves with pipes and prepare to battle rioting prisoners to protect Goldey and the tools.

The Causes

Every prison uprising has many causes. This one was no exception. Every prison rebellion signals a failure of prison administration. Again, this one was no exception. Vermont Commissioner of Corrections Steve Gold was clear about who he believes was largely responsible" for the riot: mismanagement by former LAC Warden Randy Eckman.

The apparent cause of the riot was a somewhat arbitrary and restrictive change in the rules and privileges at the facility," according to Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio. These included changes in and reductions in the use of the commissary, changes in food quality and increased punishment for minor infractions. That really ratcheted up the tension in the facility.

Vermont State Senator James Leddy, D-Chittenden, described the riot as what happens when you have a rogue warden whose actions are only known about after the riot.

CCA must agree: they fired Eckman. However, there was plenty of blame to go around.

Three months prior to the riot, LAC almost doubled in population when the Vermont prisoners arrived. Although technically not overcrowded, it went from being sparsely populated to crowded in a brief period. Eckman believed it necessary to reduce privileges, such as recreation, and freedom of movement to accommodate the increased population. Simultaneously, he began a zero-tolerance disciplinary crackdown that gave guards the ability to discipline prisoners without proof of misconduct and even put them in solitary confinement for 60 days without disciplinary charges. Thus, many prisoners spent many days of unjustified punishment in the hole.

Eckman also instituted group punishment. For instance, when some prisoners were caught gambling on pool, he removed the pool tables, revoking that privilege for all prisoners due to the misconduct of a few.

Prisoners interviewed after the riot also reported that the food rations were very small and of poor quality. Some indigent prisoners felt as if they were starving. Additionally, guards were becoming increasingly violent, beating and harassing prisoners without cause. Prisoners' complaints went unanswered. Some were singled out for retaliation because they complained.

205 of the Vermont prisoners were transferred from the only other CCA-run prison in Kentucky, Marion Adjustment Center (MAC) in St. Mary. According to CCA, they were transferred because MAC couldn't provide the proper facilities for that many prisoners (overcrowding, in other words). In fact, the Vermont prisoners' complaints about overcrowding, lack of proper facilities, guard brutality and lack of programs were repeatedly ignored until J.N., a 19-year-old prisoner in administrative segregation, complained about having been repeatedly raped by guard Joel Becks. This allegation was also dismissed until a surveillance video turned up showing Becks, who was not assigned to the segregation unit and had no legitimate business there, entering the victim's cell and later leaving it. J.N. has since filed suit against CCA., On May 2, 2004, Becks was fired, not for raping Naglack, but for vio1ating company policy by entering the segregation cell alone, without backup. A second prisoner has since complained of having been raped by Becks. Both suits have since been settled by CCA for confidential amounts. Becks has been criminally charged with the assaults.

VDOC officials had been putting the gloss on MAC for months. In April, 2004, VDOC officials claimed Vermont prisoners preferred to be incarcerated far from their families at MAC. Bill Bryan, superintendent of the Bennington VDOC office, gave a phone interview following his tour of MAC and LAC from March 25 to April 2, 2004. He responded to critics of MAC by saying that it was a work in progress that would be completed in a few months. It will be the promised land," said Bryan.

He said that Vermont prisoners would prefer MAC to LAC because, at LAC they are housed in dormitories, whereas in MAC prisoners are housed in two man cells. Bryan also said the MAC guards spoke highly of Vermont prisoners, calling them industrious and well-behaved. Bryan didn't vocalize what Vermont prisoners thought of MAC guards and facilities. Probably because he never asked them. Likewise, the mass media merely quoted Bryan without checking with the prisoners to see if any of his statements reflected their reality. He merely claimed that some of the prisoners preferred their MAC incarceration because, unlike in Vermont prisons, they could smoke there and the corporate media gobbled it up.

Meanwhile, Vermont MAC prisoners were complaining to Seth Lipschutz of the Prisoners' Rights Office of the Vermont Defender General that they were being fed on the floor of hallways, not given sufficient recreation, overcrowded into tiny facilities when given recreation, not given programs--including basics required in the CCA contract, such as a GED program--and brutalized by guards who considered them to be Yankee hillbillies" and openly used racial and ethnic slurs to bait them and label them as racists from an all-white state.

These simmering MAC prisoners were thrown into the LAC cauldron in June, 2004, after the two Vermont MAC prisoners accused a MAC guard of having raped them. There they got better recreation, but had to deal with insufficient food, bogus disciplinary actions, brutality by the guards, ever tightening rules, poor communication by the administration, ignored grievances, 200-bed dorms with seating for only 32 in the day room, and still no GED program. It is little wonder the cauldron boiled over.

Several LAC prisoners claimed that the riot was planned solely as a method of calling attention to their grievances. They claim that the plan called for no one to be injured, regardless of whether prisoner or CCA employee.

The Consequences

Before the riot, neither VDOC nor KDOC had private prison monitors at MAC or LAC. In an effort to close the door of the empty barn, VDOC placed a monitor at LAC. CCA at first relieved, then fired Eckman.

A Lee County grand jury indicted 23 prisoners. The indicted Kentucky prisoners are Alan Lee Carter, Michael Joseph Collins, Kevin Howard, Joel Hurst, Samuel Moore, Damon Talbert, and Bobby Taylor. They have been returned to KDOC prisons. Indicted Vermont prisoners include Grant G. Bentley, Daniel J. Boivin, Eddie Dewayne Estepp, Randy S. Francis, Paul Gracey, Eric T. Grant, David Harrison, Jesse James Howard, Jeremy Jennings, Jamey Victor King, Eric Marallo, Dan Paquette, Jason James Russin, Chancy Ben Smith, Jeffery Stratton, and Steven Touzin.

A KDOC report released November 23, 2004, said that the riot was created by a lack of communication up and down the chain of command" and too many changes within a short period of time." It recommended that CCA be fined $10,000 for failing to have a sufficient response team to put down the riot.

CCA immediately expressed a willingness to pay the fine. KDOC Corrections Commissioner John D. Rees, a former CCA vice-president, had previously declined to fine CCA when numerous and repeated contract violations at MAC and LAC were discovered.

Meanwhile, questions have arisen regarding CCA's contributions to Vermont politicians. CCA apparently made donations to numerous politicians, including Republican Governor James Douglas, and picked up $5,000 of the tab for the governor's inaugural ball. CCA also donated the maximum allowed by state law to Douglas's campaign and the Vermont Republican Victory Committee. CCA failed to report the donation to the inaugural ball. It should come as no surprise that when you contract out core government functions to private businesses, conflicts of public interest will occur with every campaign donation by the business. Incarcerating prisoners in private prisons a long way from home begets corruption and other problems. It is a bad idea whose time has gone.

Vermont finally seems poised to address its prison overcrowding problem. Noting the 300% increase in pre-trial detainees within ten years and the 243% increase in state prisoners within 19 years, the Vermont Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee made suggestions to control prison overcrowding. Chief among the suggestions was to release to house arrest, monitored by GPS tracking, 400 non-dangerous" prisoners. This would free up enough prison space to bring all of Vermont's out-of-state prisoners back home. GPS monitoring costs $3,000 per prisoner per year. Using it on the 400 prisoners would save Vermont around $5 million a year compared with paying CCA to house 400 prisoners. The committee also suggested building a 400-bed facility to house pre-trial detainees separate from convicted prisoners. It also suggested easing some of the restrictions on prisoners awaiting release to allow some of them to reside with family members, noting that 132 prisoners are in jail awaiting housing, but no suitable, affordable housing is available under the current rules. The report warned that if the growth in prisoners continued, Vermont would have to build three new prisons at a cost of $32 million each.

The Aftermath

Kentucky officials are not disappointed by CCA's performance during the riot. According to KDOC spokeswoman Lisa Lamb, It won't necessarily be a negative. If we determine they reacted to this quickly and properly, it could go to their credit." Thus, KDOC's plans to privatize the 96l-bed Little Sandy Correctional Complex are continuing unabated and CCA is still considered a top potential contractor. Detractors of Ree's prison privatization plan point to the riot, a nine-hour riot at the CCA-run Otter Creek Correctional Facility in Floyd County, Kentucky, nine years ago, and recent riots at CCA-run prisons in Colorado and Mississippi, [See PLN, Jan. 2005] noting that there hasn't been a riot at a state-run prison in many, many years. .

On October 29, 2004, a fight broke out among ten LCA prisoners. At least two prisoners were injured. One had to be taken to the hospital for treatment for injuries he received when hit on the head with a fire extinguisher. Maybe this will improve CCA's chances of receiving the Otter Creek contract even more.

Meanwhile, Desmond O. Spalding, a former MAC recreational coordinator, has filed suit against CCA, alleging racial discrimination and race-based harassment while he was employed at MAC. This includes an allegation that CCA officials falsely swore out an arrest warrant against him. CCA denies the allegations.

Sources: Argus Times, Associated Press, Barton Chronicle, Bennington Banner, Burlington Free Press, Champlain Channel, Courier-Journal, Lebanon Enterprise, Lexington Herald Leader, Rutland Herald, Vermont Guardian.

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