State Lawmaker Hopes National Exposure Will Ignite Supermax Investigation

The federal Supermax prison in Florence Colorado is getting more media attention than ever before, but will it be enough to prompt a congressional hearing of facility’s staffing levels?State Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, joined union officials with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) at the capitol building today in an effort to persuade Congress to investigate the staffing situation at the federal United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, where workers and union officials say personnel levels are dangerously low.

The meeting was prompted by a news story that appeared on the CBS television program 60 Minutes on Sunday, Oct. 14, covering the prison’s notorious inmates and briefly reporting on staffing concerns.

“If the federal government isn’t taking this seriously then we have a problem,” said McFadyen. “We’re hoping that Congress will help lift this veil of secrecy behind the walls of not only this institution, but the [Bureau of Prisons] in general.”

In September, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) conducted a first-time media tour of the Supermax, letting only a handful of reporters enter the institution. Correctional workers have alleged that such tours are merely a ruse used by the BOP to foster a false sense of security, and at the meeting union officials with the AFGE local 1302, which represents the prison’s correctional officers, claimed that workers were also pulled from their posts once the tour was over, leaving units understaffed.

Both union representatives and McFadyen want a Congressional field hearing to review the actual staffing rosters.

“Congress needs to take some time and look and see what’s happening,” said Mike Schnobrich, a legislative liaison for the union.  “Please Senator Salazar, please Senator Allard, please Congressman Lamborn and Congressman Salazar, we need to have these hearings, we need to know what’s going on in a systematic way without the shell games.”

In a statement responding to the allegations, the BOP said it “does not vacate essential posts” and that the correctional facility in Florence, including the Supermax and two other prisons, is “funded and staffed as one facility and not as three individual institutions,” meaning that there is a total 88 percent staffing level for all buildings.

Union officials have shown staffing rosters for the Supermax facility where entire inmate units have been vacated for 24 hour periods, and claim that the agency isn’t being upfront about the numbers. The BOP responded by saying that the Supermax is “staffed at a level that ensures the safe and orderly operation of the facility.”

This isn’t the first time Congress has been asked to investigate Supermax, but workers and officials continue to say that the situation is getting worse, and both union representatives and McFadyen voiced hope that the exposure on 60 Minutes would get the congressional wheels turning.

Also see:

Colorado Confidential’s Inside Florence Supermax series.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.

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