Prison riot revelations spark calls for transparency

(Photo/bitzcelt, Flickr)
(Photo/bitzcelt, Flickr)

The federal government needs to be more transparent in providing local communities with information about the violent incidents that occur in Colorado prisons. That’s the message from public officials reacting to recent news that a prison in the state has been on lockdown status since August, just months after a violent yard riot in April left two inmates dead.

In a series of articles published last week, The Colorado Independent reported that the high-security United States Penitentiary in the southern city of Florence — operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons — had been in lockdown status since early August following a violent inmate-on-inmate assault.

Lockdown status means that inmates are generally confined to their housing units or cells.

The incident comes just months after a deadly yard riot in April that ended with two inmates being killed by guard gunfire, and on top of that, the prison’s warden Sara Revell was just given the annual Excellence in Prison Management award from the bureau for overall management of staff and inmates.

During the riot, guards used a heavy arsenal of weaponry, including more than 200 M-16 rifle rounds, more than 300 pepper balls and nearly 12 long-range CS gas canisters, according to documentation obtained from sources inside the prison.

Rep. Buffie McFadyen, a Pueblo Democrat whose district includes the penitentiary, said the news showed how necessary it was for the bureau to release key details about the riot to the public.

“There’s a problem with the secrecy the bureau functions in to begin with overall. They’re not a very transparent organization,” McFadyen said, noting that shes talks regularly with prison workers and officials with the correctional officers union. “I have to cultivate people to talk to. I don’t get answers back from the bureau.”

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, penned a letter to bureau director Harley Lappin last week demanding that officials publicly release findings of an investigation into the riot, before it was reported that the prison had been put in lockdown mode again.

“The bottom line is the bureau needs to provide an answer on what exactly happened back in April,” said Salazar spokesperson Michael Amodeo about the most recent violence at the prison. “Five months after the fact, surrounding communities and, to a larger extent, the American public don’t have the answers they deserve. The bureau needs to share this information with the public and show that they are taking the steps necessary to improve security at the facility and prevent terrible incidents like these from happening again in the future.”

Bureau officials have not yet returned requests for comment seeking a response to the transparency criticisms and inquiring why warden Revell was given an excellence award following the violent yard melee.

The bureau has claimed that an internal investigation of the riot has not yet been completed and that official findings will be released only through a formal written request, a process that can take months or longer.

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