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Violence, lockdowns on rise in Colorado prisons

Sue Lindsay
Rocky Mountain News

State prison officials blame a stunning increase in violence and lockdowns on mushrooming gang activity and budget cuts that reduced programs to keep inmates out of trouble.

Corrections chief Ari Zavaras outlined statistics in a briefing to state lawmakers.

Prisons were locked down 148 times in the 2007-08 fiscal year, an 80 percent increase with 66 more lockdowns than in the previous fiscal year, Zavaras said.



Assaults by inmates on other inmates rose 19.5 percent and assaults by inmates on staff went up 11 percent, he said.

The corrections chief said more high-security cells are needed to isolate problem offenders from the general population.



“In the last eight years, the gang population increased by 85 percent while our inmate population only increased by 42 percent,” said prison spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti. More than 9,300 inmates of the total prison population of 23,000 are identified as gang members or affiliates, she said.

Many inmates bring their gang affiliations – and rivalries – with them. Others join gangs in prison for protection.

Sanguinetti said efforts are made to keep rival gang members away from each other, but with such high levels of gang affiliation, “they are going to run into each other more frequently.”



More violence means more lockdowns, she said.

“When we have an increase of violence, lockdown is one of the ways we manage that and keep inmates from injuring each other or staff.” It’s costly, but sometimes necessary, she said.

The need for high-security cells will be addressed by a new prison in Canon City, but its completion has been delayed until fiscal year 2010-11 in a move to cut $17 million from the prison budget, Sanguinetti said.

“When the existing (maximum security) Colorado State Penitentiary opened, we had a 66 percent reduction in violence through the system,” she said. “We expect the same effect when the new one opens.”

Until then, troublemakers must be “managed in the general population, and they continue to be disruptive,” she said.

From 2001 to 2003, Sanguinetti said, the corrections budget was slashed by $56 million, and 588 full-time prison employees were cut. Although 80 of the cut positions have been restored, she said, “we still haven’t recovered from that.”

“Along with them, we lost a lot of education, programs and treatment for inmates,” she said. “One of the key principles of offender management is to keep them busy because they are less likely to be destructive.”

Inmates also aren’t getting programs designed to change their behavior such as one in which staff took photos of prisoners that were printed and sent to inmates’ families.

Although it doesn’t seem like such a program would cost much, Sanguinetti pointed out “when you have 23,000 offenders, costs mount up.”

Inmate morale wasn’t improved by a cut in prisoner pay from several dollars a day to 60 cents. So-called gate release money given to inmates when they are released from prison has remained at $100 since the 1970s, Sanguinetti said.

An increase in funding for education programs has helped, Sanquinetti said.

Zavaras said 1,364 inmates earned their general equivalency diplomas, or GEDs, during the past fiscal year, about 400 more than the previous year.

Another bit of good news, Zavaras said, is the dramatic decrease in the number of prisoners entering the system.

About 32 inmates a month came into the system in the 2007-08 fiscal year, compared with the usual 100 a month, he said. So far this fiscal year, the number has dropped to 26 a month.

“It definitely is a hopeful trend,” Zavaras said. The overall prison population is expected to increase from 23,567 at the end of this fiscal year to 25,558 in 2021.


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