Records Show Excessive Use of Force at Colorado Supermax


June 15, 2013 | By  for Solitary Watch

Records kept by the Colorado Department of Corrections show 61 instances from March 1, 2012 to March 1 of this year of corrections officers using force on men held at the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), where prisoners are held in administrative segregation on lockdown for 23 hours a day. The “use of force” log, obtained by Denver’s Westword, documents varying levels of physical contact used in each incident, some of which required mild force, and others which prison officials deemed it necessary to use brutal control tactics, including restraint chairs and pepper spray.

This story comes from Alan Prendergast, who writes for Westword and has reported on Colorado prisons for years:

At Colorado’s state supermax prison, inmates get into confrontations with guards — over food, hygiene, privileges, a refusal to “cuff up” or whatever — out of boredom, mental illness or plain orneriness. Some claim to be provoked by staff.

Whatever the reason, it’s a contest the prisoner is going to lose every time.

Like many prisons throughout Colorado and across the nation, people with mental illness compose a large part of the population at CSP. Prendergast writes on the potential impact of solitary confinement on people with mental illness:

Although proponents of supermax prisons claim that they act as a deterrent to violence elsewhere in the corrections systems, the facilities also become repositories of “problem” inmates, whose failure to follow the rules tends to prolong their stay in solitary confinement — and possibly exacerbate any preexisting mental problems. (As we’ve previously reported, roughly a third of CSP inmates have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.)

The article continues, describing the varying levels of force that were used, which should be in accordance with DOC regulations calling for “an escalating spectrum of force, depending on the level of perceived threat”:

…DOC regulations call for an escalating spectrum of force, depending on the level of perceived threat.

The log lists twelve instances of “emergent need entry” into cells, generally triggered by an inmate being unresponsive or refusing to obey rules (such as refusing to put hands through the food slot to be cuffed before staff entry); ten cell extractions, including five using pepper spray; 31 episodes of varying degree of force to subdue inmates, from “soft empty hand control” to “hard intermediate control;” four uses of the restraint chair; and four occasions when a SORT team was activated but no use of force was required.

Prendergast notes that the names of several prisoners show up more frequently in the log, including Manuel Rodriguez and JJ Alejandro, both of whom had five documented incidents.:

Two inmates kept the teams particularly busy. Rodriguez, serving 35 years on drug and weapon charges, was the subject of five call-outs, including two that ended in the restraint chair. JJ Alejandro, doing twelve-to-life out of Larimer County, racked up five “emergent need entry” calls. Two other inmates show up on the list three times each; one, Floyd Martinez, was involved in three use-of-force reports in one day. Martinez and Rodriguez have both been moved to other prisons since March.

The article concludes, sharing “another side to the story,” as maintained by people held at the facility:

[I]f the same prisoners’ names show up in many of the incidents, perhaps the same is true for the guards. One CSP resident told Westword that the same two sergeants have been involved in several of the incidents over the past six months: “What they are doing is antagonizing inmates verbally when they are escorted to and from showers, and when an inmate comments and turns [his] head to respond, these [officers] are slamming them to the floor, then saying the inmate made an aggressive act/gesture so force was needed to subdue inmate…”

Last year we covered the case of Troy Anderson (here and here), a man held at CSP who suffers from mental illness. Anderson challenged his twelve years of solitary confinement at CSP. In an important decision, a federal judge ruled that CSP’s use of solitary confinement qualifies as “a paradigm of inhumane treatment,” ordering the prison to allow Anderson to go outdoors three hours a week.

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