Federal Prison Riot A Long Time Coming, Guards Say

At least two inmates have died as a result of a massive riot that occurred Sunday at a federal government penitentiary in Florence. The violent incident was inevitable according to staff connected to the facility.Colorado Confidential first reported yesterday that sources close to the prison were claiming that two inmates had been shot by guards on the recreation yard of the high security U.S. Penitentiary in Florence, a facility that is run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The bureau later corroborated the information.

Sources who spoke on Colorado Confidential on condition of anonymity due to an ongoing investigation of the incident had said that an additional inmate had died from wounds inflicted by other inmates during the disturbance and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating the riot. The federal Bureau of Prisons claims that no one else has died, but says it is typical for the FBI be involved during such incidents.

Correctional workers have been blowing whistles for years over what they claim are dangerously low staffing levels at government lockups in Florence. The recent violence and subsequent quelling of the riot were long-awaited results of a prison guard shortage, according to staff.

Sources now claim that inadequate staffing was one reason why an estimated 500 rounds were fired from towers surrounding the area, and why makeshift weapons and alcohol were on the yard.

“We’re not running the stuff over [at the penitentiary] anymore,” said a Florence correctional officer who wished to remain anonymous. “Why the hell are we firing hundreds of rounds at the inmates? It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

Correctional workers claim that the low number of guards has made it increasingly difficult to spot contraband like alcohol and weapons, along with gathering information about possible gang activities from inside the prison. Now staff members also fear more violence in the lockup and in other federal facilities.

“What’s the retaliation [for the guards’ shootings]?,” says a source close to the prison. “Are they going to try pick off some of the staff now?”

While the bureau has not confirmed all details about what happened, sources said that the riot broke out in the facility’s recreation yard after white supremacist inmates started saying racial slurs at black inmates while “celebrating” Adolf Hitlers birthday on Apr. 20.

The bureau later acknowledged the scenario, which involved around 200 inmates, in a statement yesterday that said the person melee appeared to have been racially motivated.

Correctional workers who spoke with Colorado Confidential also said the inmates were intoxicated on home brewed alcohol and that approximately 500 rounds of ammunition were fired from towers surrounding the yard during the disturbance, while staff in at least two towers emptied all of their rounds.

The bureau has yet to comment on how many or what type of rounds were fired, or if alcohol was being consumed in the yard, but did confirm that inmates were armed with makeshift weapons including rocks, sharpened metal and wood.

The penitentiary is part of the Florence Federal Correctional Complex, which also includes a “Supermax” facility that holds inmates deemed to be the nation’s most dangerous by the bureau, along with the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution.

In March 2005, the bureau implemented a directive called “mission critical,” where all agency institutions were ordered to come up with staffing roasters that listed the bare-minimum needed to run each prison safely.

The report was produced for all of the Florence facilities but correctional officers say that it led to no changes.

In August 2006 — 18 months after the “mission critical” report was released — workers complained that the short staffing lead to increased tension and an unsafe environment, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents correctional workers at the Supermax facility, underwent arbitration with the BOP over the issue. The union claimed that the BOP had violated conditions in their master agreement contract by not consulting the union about the staffing cutbacks, and the arbitrator ruled in their favor, although it was also found impossible to force the bureau to fix the situation.

In a September news story on Colorado Confidential, former Florence penitentiary employee Cory Hodge talked about understaffing and how he was stabbed six times by an inmate in 2003:

“It was me and a female correctional officer, who ran after I was assaulted and pretty much left me for dead,” says Hodge. “I fought as hard as I could and I managed to get out into the inmate common area where a hundred other inmates surrounded me and were encouraging this other inmate to kill me.”

Various correctional workers and union officials who work at the complex have also claimed it’s only a matter of time before more deadly outbursts due to guard shortages.

Further, another Colorado Confidential report cited a veteran correctional worker at the Florence Supermax facility on the staffing levels:

“Either a CO’s going to have to get hurt or an inmate’s going to die before it gets corrected,” the officer says.

Colorado Confidential also obtained a internal memo in March showing the bureau was facing a projected budget shortfall of $289 million in funding and could be force to terminate thousands of correctional staff positions to the point “where safety and security of staff and inmates could be in jeopardy” according to the document.

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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