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State may examine finances at prison

State may examine finances at prison
Governor orders inquiry as officials assess riot damage

By John J. Sanko And Clayton Woullard, Rocky Mountain News
July 23, 2004

Although state lawmakers have carried out four audits of state prison programs since 1999, they have never audited the private company in charge of the southern Colorado prison engulfed by a riot Tuesday.

The Crowley County prison that erupted in flames is run by Corrections Corporation of America.

The company describes itself as the sixth-largest corrections system in the nation, behind only the federal government and four states.
It manages 66,000 beds in 65 prisons, including 38 facilities that it owns, in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Four are in Colorado.

A state senator said Thursday the state might want to take a closer look at its finances.

“We can follow the state’s money and audit that,” said Sen. Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, a longtime audit committee member. “Perhaps we should do more along that line. We have looked at the bank accounts for the prisoners that are held in the private prisons, but we have never audited security there.”

Gov. Bill Owens ordered an investigation of Tuesday’s riot shortly after he flew to southern Colorado on Wednesday for a visit to the site, 40 miles east of Pueblo.

State prison officials were working Thursday trying to assess the causes and dollar loss from the riot that caused extensive damage and injured 13 inmates.

More than a third of the 1,147 inmates were believed to have taken part in the 51/2-hour disturbance, setting fires, smashing equipment and fighting.

“We’ve got at least 400 inmates to talk to and 100 staff members,” said Corrections Department spokesperson Alison Morgan.

“We’re going to look closely at what happened Tuesday night, what went wrong and what went right. But what happened Tuesday night can happen in any prison system.”

Morgan said the corrections department has a 13-member private prison monitoring unit with an on-call duty officer around the clock.

“We provide training, we conduct background checks, we regularly go in and interview inmates to see what they’re doing,” Morgan said.

In addition, the unit looks at inmate case management to make sure any number of procedures are followed correctly, including inmate grievances.

The unit also audits clinical services, monitors drug and alcohol abuse training standards, and reviews the use of psychotropic medication, the time it takes for an inmate to get medical services and mental health programs.

No one could estimate the damage from Tuesday’s melee, but state officials insisted those costs would be borne by CCA.

The state also intends to bill the company for its costs in rushing more than 100 correctional officers and other help to the scene to help quell the uprising, as well as the expense of the investigation – a cost that could run as high as $150,000.

Louise Chickering of CCA said it was too early to assess the damage, but she said insurance would “significantly mitigate” much of the cost.

The prison held 807 inmates from Colorado, 190 from Washington and 150 from Wyoming. Only one inmate remained hospitalized Thursday at St. Mary Corwin Hospital in Pueblo. He was reported in serious but stable condition with stab wounds.

Chickering said more than 900 inmates remained at the prison with 116 Wyoming inmates transferred to the company’s three other prisons in Colorado, while 65 Colorado inmates went to either state facilities or other CCA units.

“Cleanup has begun on one of the four damaged housing units,” Chickering said. “Two were seriously damaged. Two others were damaged but are habitable.”

A fifth unit was not damaged and a sixth is under construction.

Sean Duffy, deputy chief of staff for the governor, said Owens has asked for a thorough state investigation on what led to the riot and how the CCA and the state reacted.

“From what we saw at the scene, the governor was extremely impressed with the response of the teams from our corrections department and other law enforcement,” Duffy said.

However, one state lawmaker, Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, repeated her demand for a legislative review on both the safety and cost-effectiveness of private prisons.

And at a news conference in Pueblo, Frank Smith of the anti- private prison group Private Corrections Institute said that “Olney Springs came apart at the seams, and it was no big surprise.”

Smith, along with Brian Dawe, executive director of Corrections U.S.A., a nonprofit group that represents the nation’s public corrections officers, said private prisons do not protect the public.

“This isn’t about public safety for the private prisons, it’s about the money,” Dawe said.

Smith said he talked to some of the corrections officers at Crowley and they expressed concerns about understaffing, low pay and inadequate training. Dawe said private prison guards receive 30 percent less training than those at federal facilities.

Smith said he was also told that Colorado prisoners might have started the riot because they were not happy about what they considered special treatment that prisoners from Washington state were receiving.

Dawe, a former prison guard, said moving inmates out of state and away from their families is bad for the prison and the public. “I guess Colorado doesn’t have enough problems, so they need to import some more,” he said.

Chickering said the claims by Dawe and other anti-private prison groups are inaccurate.

“They are always critical because they don’t want competition in the corrections system,” Chickering said.

Copyright 2004, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

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