Lawsuits Over Riot at CCA Prison in Colorado Settle for $600,000
by Derek Gilna
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), confronted with the prospect of a jury trial scheduled to last 25 weeks on the claims of almost 200 current and former prisoners who suffered injuries during a 2004 riot at the company’s Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs, Colorado, decided to settle the long-standing litigation. CCA agreed to pay $600,000 to the prisoners, none of whom had participated in the riot according to their lead attorney, William Trine.
CCA, the largest for-profit prison operator in the United States, is no stranger to controversy and litigation. Spawned by the incarceration frenzy that resulted from the so-called War on Drugs and tough-on-crime initiatives, private prison companies such as CCA cashed in, but at the same time gained a sullied reputation for prioritizing profits over public safety. The riot at the Crowley County facility was an outgrowth of CCA’s misplaced priorities.
While prisons and jails can be dangerous places, proper management can reduce risks to both prisoners and employees. A well-designed facility, experienced supervisory staff and trained correctional officers can help minimize the danger, but the evidence in this case showed that CCA came up short in each of those categories. Systemic deficiencies in CCA’s corporate culture have resulted in prisoners suffering unnecessary hardships, avoidable injuries and preventable deaths.
This corporate culture was summed up in an amended complaint filed by the prisoner plaintiffs in the Crowley County litigation, who alleged, “In order to increase its profits from housing prisoners, CCA has a national policy and practice of cutting costs by building prisons in remote rural areas to take advantage of cheap, non-union labor, then understaffing and providing inadequate training to its guards. It also increases profits by accepting inmates from other states in order to keep its prison filled.”
Washington state prisoners were transferred to the medium-security facility in Crowley County before it was managed by CCA, and had previously clashed with other prisoners and staff. In 1999 there was a riot at the prison when it was operated by another company, Correctional Services Corporation. [See: PLN, June 1999, p.10]. Following that disturbance, caused largely by intermingling prisoners from different states and of different security levels, Washington officials had brought their prisoners back home. After CCA assumed management of the Crowley County prison, it added 800 more beds; it did not, however, add additional education, vocational or recreational facilities.
Nonetheless, Washington again transferred several hundred prisoners to Crowley County and once again there was friction. Washington prisoners came from a more rehabilitative and less harsh prison environment, where they were paid almost three times more per hour for the same work performed by prisoners in Colorado. There were also privileges, such as smoking, that Washington prisoners were permitted when housed in their home state that were denied to them at the CCA prison.
Additionally, most family members of Washington prisoners who had been transferred were unable to afford the expense to travel to Colorado for visits, and long distance phone calls from the Crowley County facility were prohibitively expensive.
The situation came to a head on July 20, 2004, when CCA guards forcibly removed a young Washington prisoner from the yard and took him to the special housing unit in a manner that other prisoners felt constituted excessive force. Rumors began to circulate that many disgruntled Washington prisoners would start a disturbance later that day, and other nervous prisoners advised CCA staff that they should be alert for trouble. At the time, the facility also housed prisoners from Wyoming and Colorado.
Although CCA officials had been alerted to potential violence, they failed to take appropriate action to protect both prisoners and staff. According to the amended complaint, “at approximately 7:00 p.m. inmates ... were released to the recreation yards and at approximately 7:05 p.m. a group of inmates in the West Recreation Yard requested to speak to the Warden about complaints and grievances that the inmates had, [but officials] denied the request and immediately retreated from the yard. The Shift Commander ordered all prisoners from the yard, but inmates who had requested to speak to the Warden became hostile.... An order was then given for the living units to lock their doors and for the prison staff to evacuate their posts.”
The complaint alleged that the Crowley County facility did not have adequate staff on hand to react to what happened next. Further, CCA staff delayed in using tear gas to quell the growing disturbance, despite orders from state prison officials, because they were awaiting approval from corporate office. Prisoners seeking to return to their units were locked out and left to fend for themselves without the intervention or protection of prison staff. The rioting prisoners broke into management offices, searched records for information on informants and sex offenders, and started fires. Several housing units filled with smoke and were flooded after plumbing was vandalized.
CCA employees who fled the facility left a female librarian behind, locked in the library with dozens of prisoners who did not take part in the disturbance. She was not harmed. The riot lasted over four hours and resulted in millions of dollars in damage to the facility. Thirteen prisoners were later transported to a local hospital for treatment. [See: PLN, Jan. 2005, p.26].
Special Operations Response Teams (SORT) from the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) arrived at the CCA prison around 10:30 p.m., put down the riot using tear gas and rubber bullets, then subdued and tightly cuffed and shackled not only the rioters but all other prisoners at the facility. The prisoners were dragged through and forced to lie down in a mixture of water, sewage waste and blood, and were not allowed to use the bathroom. Some urinated and defecated on themselves. The SORT team members, many of whom were hooded and without name tags, then punished prisoners who complained. All of the prisoners were taken outside, where they remained the rest of the evening into the next morning; some were denied medical care and water.
“We weren’t treated as humans, we were treated more as animals – animals probably get treated better,” said former prisoner Ross Nuanes.
But the punitive response to the riot was not complete. Prisoners, including those who did not take part in the disturbance, were placed on lockdown for several months with no access to visitors, telephones or legal representatives, and were forced to undergo humiliating conditions, including denial of clean clothes and laundry. Some were forced to shower in front of guards of the opposite sex while being exposed to ridicule.
The Colorado Department of Corrections issued an “after action” report on October 1, 2004 that concluded CCA should have foreseen and prevented the riot, but noted that state officials were virtually powerless to deal with similar situations at private prisons. “At present, there are few mechanisms in place for holding private operators or contractors accountable when deficiencies are delayed or never corrected,” the report stated. [See: PLN, Jan. 2005, p.31]. An Inspector General’s report found that CCA “had too many green [new] staff on duty the night of the riot.” In fact, there were only 47 employees at the facility, including eight trainees, to oversee 1,122 prisoners.
Lead counsel William Trine was confronted with the Herculean task of sifting through the claims of 230 prisoners not involved in the riot, some of whom had been transferred back to Washington state, some of whom had been released and some of whom failed to respond to letters. A class action could not be maintained under existing law, meaning that Trine had to pursue a separate case for each of the 193 prisoner plaintiffs who eventually made it to trial. The court also denied a motion to transfer the case out of Crowley County, where many potential jurors likely knew or were related to people who worked at the prison.
Further, Trine had to force CCA and its attorneys to comply with routine discovery requests; only after the trial court sanctioned CCA did he obtain the discovery that the company failed to produce in a timely manner. One CCA employee had created different versions of the same report – one for public dissemination and one for internal use, apparently. The latter report indicated that yard officers had met an hour before the riot and several had expressed concerns about imminent violence, but they were ignored by a CCA captain who was later suspended and then fired.
In addition, although CCA had sent a team of wardens to the Crowley County prison to conduct a post-riot report, the company failed to produce the report, claiming it couldn’t be found. The trial court granted Trine’s motion for sanctions by ordering a spoliation jury instruction.
The case went to the Colorado Court of Appeals five times, resulting in two published opinions. See: Adams v. Corrections Corporation of America,187 P.3d 1190 (Colo. App. 2008) [PLN, April 2009, p.34] and Adams v. Corrections Corporation of America,264 P.3d 640 (Colo. App. 2011). CCA took the depositions of 126 prisoners, and Trine deposed 30 of the company’s employees.
Shortly before trial, after the court dismissed CCA’s affirmative defenses and found the evidence supported claims for punitive damages, the company agreed to settle the cases in April 2013 for a total of $600,000, including attorneys’ fees. CCA said the settlement was an “economic decision” and defended the actions of its employees. See: Adams v. Corrections Corporation of America, Crowley County District Court (CO), Case No. 2005CV60.
In an article published after the litigation concluded, Trine said everyone involved in the riot and its aftermath were victims of CCA’s callous indifference, stating that “as the legal custodian of the inmates, responsible for their health and safety,” CCA had a duty to protect them. Instead, the company had ignored the prisoners’ “need for rehabilitation and family contact” and had understaffed the facility to maximize its profits. Unfortunately CCA has since experienced other violent disturbances, including an October 2011 riot at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, Oklahoma and a 2012 riot at the Adams County Correctional Center in Mississippi that resulted in the death of a CCA employee. [See: PLN, July 7, 2014; Oct. 2012, p.32].
For the victims of the Crowley County riot, the settlement after more than eight years of litigation brought to a close a painful chapter in the lives of almost 200 non-rioting prisoners abused by prison staff, and provided some modest compensation for their injuries. Individual settlement awards ranged from around $1,500 to $17,000. The settlement had the added benefit of no confidentiality provision, so it could provide the public with a look at the shortcomings of the private prison industry.
“I would gladly take no money if I knew that CCA was going to be no more, not only in Colorado but everywhere,” said former prisoner Vance Adams, a plaintiff in the case. “It really should be up to states to run their own prisons, to supply their own correctional officers and to keep their own inmates in check instead of having someone who has labeled you as a number and is just trying to earn money off of you.”
“When a private prison company’s duties as a custodian to protect the safety and welfare of its inhabitants conflicts with its desire to create profits for its shareholders, the profit motive always prevails,” Trine added.
CCA continues to operate the Crowley County Correctional Facility; Washington removed its prisoners, and according to the CDOC the facility “no longer accepts out-of-state prisoners.” William Trine is a board member of the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes Prison Legal News, and we commend him and the other attorneys who represented the plaintiffs, including Cheryl Trine and Adele Kimmel with Public Justice, for their exceptional efforts in this case.
Additional sources: Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, www.thedenverchannel.com, www.doc.state.co.us, CBS4, http://thinkoutsidethecage2.blogspot.com, Westword
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