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Colorado Officials Increasingly Rely on Lockdowns to Manage Prison Violence

According to statistics released by Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) Director Ari Zavaras in a briefing to state lawmakers in February 2009, state prisons saw an increase in levels of violence among prisoners in fiscal year 2007-08 relative to the levels reported the previous year.

Although the rise in violent incidents was a relatively modest 11 to 20 percent, the number of prison lockdowns increased over the same period of time by a remarkable 80 percent. Prison officials attributed the growing level of violence to a steep increase in the number of incarcerated gang members.

CDOC spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti reported that while Colorado’s prison population had increased by 42 percent over the past eight years, its gang population had grown at more than double that rate. According to Sanguinetti, over 9,300 prisoners, or approximately 40 percent of the state’s total prison population of 23,000, are identified as gang members or affiliates.

In his briefing to state legislators, Zavaras indicated that the number of prison lockdowns had increased from 82 in fiscal year 2006-07 to 148 in FY 2007-08; the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults during that period had increased from 369 to 441; and the number of prisoner-on-staff assaults had increased from 265 to 294.

In one large-scale incident, around 30 prisoners at the Trinidad Correctional Facility fought in the yard on December 31, 2008. As a result, the prison was placed on lockdown for five days. Previously, in October 2008, dozens of Colorado prisoners engaged in a melee at the CCA-operated Huerfano County Correctional Center; that incident led to a lockdown, too.

Another contributing factor to the increased violence is a decrease in education and treatment programs. “One of the key principles of offender management is to keep them busy because they are less likely to be destructive,” Sanguinetti explained. When the corrections budget was slashed between 2001 and 2003, she noted, 588 full-time employee positions were cut (many, presumably, from areas involving rehabilitative programs, since prison officials are loathe to reduce security staff). While most of those positions have been restored, “we still haven’t recovered from that,” Sanguinetti said.

However, the trend to cut back on programs may be reversing itself. According to Sanguinetti, a recent increase in funding for prison education programs had helped raise morale among prisoners, which had taken a dive when prisoner pay was cut from several dollars to just $.60 a day.

CDOC Director Zavaras saw reason for hope in the fact that the number of prisoners entering the system had dramatically decreased from roughly 100 a month in previous years to just 32 a month in FY 2007-08. No doubt he was just as pleased with the fact that the increased levels of violence in Colorado’s prisons, and the increase in gang members, would be addressed by a high-security prison being built in Canon City that is scheduled to open in FY 2010-11. The number of violent incidents systemwide is expected to drop after the new facility opens.

Meanwhile, fiscal constraints led Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to propose closing several state prisons earlier this year, including the Women’s Correctional Facility in Canon City and a minimum-security facility in Rifle. Sanguinetti said prisoners at the affected prisons would be moved to other facilities. [See: PLN, April 2009, p.1].

The Governor’s prison closure plan had its critics. State Attorney General John Suthers, for one, said he was concerned the proposed closures were “short sighted.” In what sounded like political posturing, Suthers stated, “I realize there are a lot of competing interests, but public safety has got to be number one.”

Not to worry. On February 21, 2009, Governor Ritter engaged in some political posturing of his own by announcing that the prison in Rifle would remain open, much to the relief of local residents who feared they might lose their jobs. The Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility officially closed in June.

Sources: Rocky Mountain News,,

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