Rosa riffs on Supermax series

Editor’s note: This is the speech that Colorado Independent fellow Erin Rosa delivered while accepting an honorable mention award from the Newspaper Guild this week for her series last year on problems at the Supermax prison in Florence.

It was reported recently this year that 1 in 100 adults in the United States were incarcerated in some kind of detention facility, and the Bureau of Prisons, which manages the federal prison system, has made it very difficult to understand what is going on behind locked doors.

Correctional workers often face retaliation or being fired if they speak to the media, and even union officials who work as prison guards can face repercussions for choosing to talk.

In Colorado, in a small town called Florence, there is a Supermax prison where the federal government sends people they deem to be the most dangerous. The Unabomber is there, there are convicted terrorists and a whole slew of other individuals who are locked up almost 24 hours a day. I wouldn’t have been able to do this story if it wasn’t for the correctional officers working at the prison who took the risk to talk to me, some on the record and others on an anonymous basis. I wouldn’t have even had this unique story if I hadn’t made the choice to listen to those who worked at the prison.

I was told that other media outlets in the area chose not to investigate claims of understaffing at the prison specifically because they were being made by a labor union — members of the American Federation of Government Employees, who were the only people with any protection to speak out about such concerns.

I later found out that staffing wasn’t the only problem. When I reported on that a sewage spill underneath the prison had not been cleaned up and was making inmates and employees sick since 2003, Bureau officials claimed that it had properly taken care of the mess under OSHA recommendations. I then received documents showing that the Bureau did not properly clean up the spill under OSHA recommendations, and that the agency had made false statements.

There aren’t just problems at the Supermax prison either. Recently a federal prison right next door was the scene of a riot where two inmates were killed by guards. These serious problems with our prisons are not just in Colorado, they are happening all over. I look forward to further exposing these problems and hopefully contributing to a change in them.

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