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The Rise and Fall of Colorado’s Supermax - Part 2
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 12/11/2017

Prison cell w The following is Part 2 in a three part series.

As the Colorado system continued to grow, designs were completed for many additional facilities, including yet another supermax facility: CSP II. The CSP II facility was designed to be a replication of the first CSP; however, the funding plan for this prison was non-traditional. This second supermax was expected to be funded through a lease purchase agreement and this new type of funding was challenged in the courts. It took three years for the court system to decide that the funding plan was legal and by then (2007) the cost of construction had increased so that modifications had to be made to the design of CSP II These modifications removed all programming areas and added the latest technology in the inmate cells. This technology allowed for communication with employees through a computer monitor and allowed for video visitation with friends and family. With the new technology, the number of reasons that an inmate would need to be removed from his cell was cut by half. The computer system dramatically increased the safety of all involved, but it also decreased the amount of human contact the inmate had during his incarceration at CSP II. The changes in the design even removed the speaker ports on individual cell doors so that all communication had to come through the speaker system of the computer system. The evolution of supermax was taken to a whole new level.

By the time CSP II was ready to be staffed and opened, nationally the tide was turning on the need for supermax beds and Colorado was under a particularly heavy attack. In Colorado, almost 7 % of all the state’s inmates were held in segregation which far exceeded the level of 2% or below in other state jurisdictions (Austin & Sparkman, 2011). The only reason funds were allocated to hire the necessary staff for a partial opening of the new 200 million dollar prison, was that a compromise was reached at the legislature. The funds were approved for a partial opening of the CSP II facility (only 1/3 of the beds were funded) along with 1.5 million dollars to increase the services to the mentally ill that were held in a supermax environment in Colorado (Long Bill FY 11-12, 2011-2012). This compromise was communicated to department employees as a political win and a vote of confidence that the work being done at CSP was appreciated so much that the legislature and the people of Colorado wanted to increase the numbers of inmates that could be managed in a similar way. As the supermax operations in Colorado continued, with apparent support from the executive and management staff, the management approach to controlling inmate behavior was continually readjusted. The program was based on the concept that the inmates worked their way into CSP and they would have to work their way out. (At the time, the only inmates that were placed at CSP based on their sentence were those sentenced to the penalty of death.) Inmates were expected to adhere to the strict behavioral guidelines and complete required educational programs. CSP employees developed seven educational programs, while these curriculums were educationally sound, none were considered to be “evidenced based.”

This approach to programing was showing some success with inmates that entered CSP; however, there was a core group of inmates that were transferred to CSP soon after it opened who never progressed out. Facility reports indicated an average length of stay at CSP of 22.5 months. However, this length of stay was calculated based upon the inmates who entered and left CSP, so the inmates that never left were not part of the mathematical calculation. These long-term inmates could be separated into two groups. The first group included those who had completed the programs but were deemed too dangerous to return to a more open facility. The second group was comprised of those who were not reacting positively to the program that allowed them to work their way out of CSP and their negative behavior continued to escalate. . The measures taken to deal with this increased negativity also escalated. Haney (2008) describes a culture of harm inside super max prisons that includes a centrifugal force that evolves over time and results in more harsh treatment of inmates in a supermax environment. This type of centrifugal force was operating inside of CSP.

Some formal policy modifications increased the austerity and control within the supermax environment, but others were a result of informal agreements reached among staff that addressed the areas where policy was unclear or silent. One such action was how the telephone call privileges were allowed. The policy was clear that if an inmate worked his way to an appropriate level, the number of phone calls he could make each month was defined. However, the implementation of this rule meant that the inmate rarely had an opportunity to make that many calls. The written policy stated that the phone calls were to be made during the afternoon shift. The informal agreement for the implementation of this process evolved to a process where the inmate porters (janitors) always had the opportunity to use the phone first. Then, an announcement was made that any other inmates who wanted to use the phone that day should press their call button. The order in which they pressed their call button was the order in which they were escorted to the phone. Of course, there was no objective proof available to the inmates about where they were in line and they had to take the word of the employees. If the staff didn’t have time to get to them on that day, the inmates would have to press the call button again the next day, after the porters were done with the phone. This process resulted in some inmates not getting to make a phone call the entire month, even though they had “earned” the privilege to make up to six calls.

Another unique measure that was taken to address inmate behavior was the use of “special controls.” The use of special controls had been in place at Centennial Correctional Facility prior to the opening of CSP and these controls allowed for an inmate to be removed from their cell, placed in restraints, and taken to a more controlled environment where they would be monitored one-on-one by an officer. The centrifugal force that Haney described also was seen in the evolution of how special controls were implemented at CSP. At first, the inmate would be placed in restraints and remain there for several hours. The facility based procedure did not dictate a time limit on the number of hours an inmate would remain in restraints. As the procedure evolved at CSP a requirement for a minimum number of hours was added but no maximum time was included. The policy was based on the premise that the inmate purposefully did something that warranted the staff to remove him from a cell, usually by force, and place him in restraints. Therefore, policy reflected a minimum number of hours to keep him in restraints so that he would not think lightly of repeating such a behavior.

A third example of this centrifugal force was found in the “forced cell” policy. Removing an inmate from his cell by force has occurred throughout the history of prisons in this country. In the “old days,” the shift commander would round up the “biggest” guys on duty and they would charge into a cell and pull the inmate out. A system-wide evaluation of the types of injuries incurred by staff and inmates during these force cell removals prompted decision makers to find a way to reduce injuries. It has just been in the past 25 years that Colorado formalized this practice into a process known as a forced cell entry. This formal process delineated the role of seven employees and defined the equipment that they would need to perform this task. The forced cell entry process was very structured and, in theory, it was done the same way, each time. When the number of forced cell entries at CSP continued to increase, the Colorado system changed the structure of the forced cell entry process in 1998 to include the use of chemical agents. From that time forward, all forced cell entries (in all facilities) were completed by first using chemical agents to subdue the inmate, unless that particular inmate could not be exposed to chemical agents based upon their medical history. The move to add chemical agents was not done informally, but as a matter of policy. Adding chemical agents to the process did reduce the total number of force cell entry incidents and thereby reduced the number of injuries overall. While this policy change was made to reduce injury, it is a further example of the centrifugal force theory that Haney described (2008).

Even though CSP was accredited by ACA, the facility did not have a systematic plan to rotate staff out of the facility. An ACA non-mandatory standard requires a policy that governs the selection, supervision and rotation of staff who work directly with inmates in segregation (4-4259). The standard falls short of stating that staff working in segregation must be rotated out of that environment on any set schedule, however, the implication is that professional correctional administrators should consider options regarding rotation. CSP was been found complaint with the staff rotation standard by providing evidence that there is some staff movement within the facility and some promotions or transfers out of the facility. However, there has been no comprehensive plan to rotate or transfer employees out of this environment.

When CSP was a new facility and the employees were “hand-picked” for supermax, rotation was dismissed because these highly qualified staff were vital for the completion for the mission at CSP. The informal rule was that the only way a staff member would be allowed to leave CSP was for a promotion at another facility. As the years went on and the popularity of supermax confinement waned, the attractiveness of trying to recruit from CSP for another facility diminished. If special circumstances suggested that an individual from CSP would benefit from another facility assignment, the receiving facility was often seen as the one that was taking a “hit” for the good of the department. Additionally, the number of supermax employees being offered promotions outside of CSP decreased. Along with public opinion, the correctional professionals within the same system started to look upon the supermax employees as “less than professional.”

Many factors converged to create doubt surrounding the effectiveness and necessity of supermax confinement within Colorado, including a change in management from the Warden to the Governor. A new warden was appointed to CSP and Centennial in 2007 who was directed to make significant changes in the management of the facility. These “marching orders” were not publicly proclaimed and resistance from employees was significant. The most significant change was made by pulling the facility back to the policy, in effect reversing some of the centrifugal forces. The informal rules that had been developed in areas where policy was unclear or silent were addressed one by one and either codified in policy or prohibited by policy. The sign up system for phone calls is one particular example of pulling back to the policy and approving a process that allowed all inmates who earned this privilege to actually have access to the phones.

As with most correctional systems, Colorado was being pushed to increase inmate success after release. Surprisingly, the numbers of inmates that were being released directly to the streets from supermax prison exceeded over 200 in 2007 (Colorado Department of Corrections, 2008) . Many of these inmates were transported to a local bus stop, in full restraints, with an armed chase car. The officers would remove the restraints and direct the inmate towards to bus. This removal of restraints was often in full view of the public, including the other people getting on the bus. Still, no one was complaining.

This new warden started educating policy makers and other key personnel about the number of inmates that were released from CSP to the community and the public safety risk this created. The first reaction was that the warden was wrong, or relying upon bad data, because releasing these inmates directly to the streets was very dangerous and irresponsible. However, the data was not only correct, but it was publically available to anyone through the internet; still no immediate action was taken to change the releases.

A second issue brought to the forefront by this warden was that the number of mentally ill inmates in supermax were over-represented when compared with the general population and there was a serious lack of mental health treatment for these inmates. The data was there, but no one was looking at it or talking about it.

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 the conclusion off 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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