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The Rise and Fall of Colorado’s Supermax - Part 1
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 12/04/2017

Prison-cell-w The following is Part 1 in a three part series.

The current controversy surrounding the use of supermax prisons and solitary confinement has led to many individuals questioning how we got to the point that so many jurisdictions built and then abandoned 23 hour lockdown facilities. Specifically, the citizens of Colorado have questioned how a second supermax facility was built, opened, and now this 200 million dollar facility sits dormant. These types of facilities did not spring up out of nowhere, instead, they are a direct result of the increase in violence within the nation’s overcrowded prisons over the past 20 years (Haney, 2008). As the number of people sent to prison increased, these people were stuffed into a system that was not prepared for them, nor were these systems nimble enough to expand quickly. As a result, the corrections systems were pushed beyond capacity. Most jurisdictions reacted by double bunking virtually all beds, modifying program spaces into housing areas, and building new prisons. This rush to accommodate more inmates also necessitated the recruitment, hiring, and training of additional employees. To say these systems were under stress and operating from a reactionary mode would be an understatement. The stress upon the system was evident to the employees and inmates and the resulting increase in violence within the correctional facilities was inevitable.

Reactions to an increasingly unsafe environment were initiated by correctional staff, legislatures, inmate advocacy groups, and the courts. The pressures from this variety of stakeholders led to conflict that made establishing a well thought out vision for growth virtually impossible. This conflict translated into a confused and reactionary approach that permeated throughout the system, including into the lives and actions of the inmates and front-line officers. The vacancy rates among line officers climbed and the goal of rehabilitation and programming quickly felt less and less important as programs were cut due to funding shortages. Each time an act of violence was reported within correctional facilities, responsible correctional administrators went to work to reduce the likelihood of that type of incident reoccurring. These responses included implementing controlled movement schedules, increasing regimentation in dining halls, and decreasing the numbers of inmates allowed in program areas such as the gyms or outside recreations yards.

Simultaneous to these actions was the increase in the number and power of inmate gangs within the prisons. Tracking and identification of gang members and gang activities became a specialized focus within most jurisdictions. As the sophistication of these gangs improved, the sophistication of the gang intelligence operations also improved. These specialized units tracked and detailed the role of gangs in the violence within the prison systems and they began to work closely with law enforcement agencies outside of prison to show the connection between imprisoned gang leaders and the acts of violence in free society.

In an effort to stop the surge of violence, correctional administrators went to work to eliminate these types of actions. Procedures that governed inmate mail, phone calls, and visitors were made more restrictive over and over. The use of new technology aided in the screening and monitoring of each of these activities. This screening and monitoring provided additional intelligence that identified the sources of the increased violence, both in the prisons and in the community.

Given this pattern, the resulting supermax prisons could also be described as a foreseeable outcome of the criminal justice system. Historically, the management of prison violence has been accomplished by two methods: dispersion or concentration. The idea that trouble-makers should be separated in the system to decrease the power base and potential for mass violence has been called the dispersion method. The concentration method aimed to reduce violence throughout the system by concentrating trouble-makers in one facility (Ward & Werlich, 2003).

Colorado adopted the concentration method when the highest security facility, Centennial Correctional Facility, was changed from a tightly controlled high security prison with movement of inmates in groups of eight or less, to a 23 hour a day lockdown unit. This facility provided a place for violent inmates in the Colorado system to be housed, in an effort to improve safety in the rest of the system.

The Centennial Correctional Facility was not built for this type of mission and the number of cells available was inadequate for the demand throughout the system. So attention turned to a new prison that was already in the design phase for the Colorado System. The design was modified to house inmates who would be locked within cells for 23 hours a day. The planning for this supermax facility included what was touted as a “state of the art” program. Eugene Atherton, CSP Warden, was interviewed as part of a program filmed for television: Lock Up Raw. In that video he described the type of environment that was created at the new CSP facility: “CSP couldn’t be a place where inmates could get comfortable and make a life for themselves, we had to treat them differently.” The state of the art program was intended to provide inmates with skills to safely function in lower security facilities while making sure CSP was not a good place to hide out and do their time.

When the facility opened, with 756 beds, the inmates were transferred from Centennial as well as segregation areas throughout the state. The remaining beds were filled very quickly, the old adage: “if you build it, they will come” was right on target. The first real supermax for the state of Colorado was named the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP). This would be the second CSP in the history of Colorado. The original CSP was the first prison and for many years, the only prison. It was known for very tough living conditions and as a brutal environment, it is significant that this particular name would be recycled to the modern day supermax facility. The second CSP opened in 1993. CSP would house the worst of the worst inmates. So employees were hand-picked from both current employees and new recruits. Management staff often referred to these employees as an elite group of people, “the best of the best.”

CSP attracted worldwide attention when the initial data indicated that moving inmates into CSP reduced the violence in the rest of the system by 67%, during that first year. As a result, correctional professionals contacted facility staff to get copies of the CSP program plan and many agencies sent employees to tour the facility. When the American Correctional Association (ACA) approved the accreditation of CSP in 1996, it was the first supermax prison to achieve this accreditation.

In 1994, the Federal Bureau of Prisons choose a location just 10 miles from CSP to be the home of their new supermax facility – ADX-Florence. While many people came to the area to tour both CSP and ADX, the programming and design of the facilities were very different. A major difference was that CSP did not have an outdoor recreation area for inmates. Inmates were only allowed to go down the tier to a room that was bigger than their cell and was equipped with a metal grate over an opening to provide access to outside air. Critics immediately began to call attention to this arrangement as a lack of outdoor recreation which they saw as a serious constitutional violation.

As the success of CSP continued to be proclaimed, the employees that were picked to work at this facility continued to be told that they were doing important work, perhaps the most important work in the agency. They believed that they were making a difference in the safety of the system and that their programing was making a difference in the behavior of the inmates assigned to CSP. The “elite” status of this group of staff was repeated over and over and the facility was actually referred to as the “flagship” of the system. This reputation contributed to a high number of CSP staff being selected for promotions, even at other facilities. This “elite” status affected all who worked there. The wardens of the supermax facilities also garnered increased prestige and power (Mears, 2008). The message was clear, the CSP staff were to be rewarded for doing the work at the supermax prison and whenever possible, they were to be chosen for promotion over other employees. Predictably, employees of other facilities resented this difference in status and a division between those that worked, or had worked at CSP, and those that had not, grew.

An earlier version of this article was published in January 2016 in The International Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology Newsletter. It has been reprinted with permission.

Check back next week for Part 2 of this three part series.


American Correctional Association. (2012). Administrative Segregation Review Congress of Corrections Workshops. Denver,CO
Austin, J., & Sparkman, E. (2011). Colorado Department of Corrections Adminsitrative Segregation and Classification Review, Technical Assistance # 11P1022: National Institute of Corrections.
Colorado Department of Corrections. (2008). Statistical Report
Haney, C. (2008). A culture of harm: Taming the dynamics of cruelty in supermax prisons. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(8), 956-984.
Judge R. Brooke Jackson. (2012). Final order and judgment, U.S. District Courts for the District of Colorado.
Long Bill FY 11-12, Colorado, Officer of the Stat Controller (2011-2012).
Mears, D. P. (2008). "An assessment of supermax prisons using an evaluation research framework." The Prison Journal 88(1): 43-68.
Slate, R. N. a. J. W. W. (2008). Criminalization of mental illness. Durhan, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Ward, D. A., & Werlich, T. G. (2003). Alcatraz and marion. Punishment & Society, 5(1), 53-75. doi: 10.1177/1462474503005001295

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".


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