Federal prison reconstructing inmate yard after outdoor riot

(Photo/Todd Ehlers, Flickr)
(Photo/Todd Ehlers, Flickr)

A high-security penitentiary in southern Colorado is separating its outside recreational yard into smaller segments following a violent riot in April that left two inmates dead.

Along with the new construction, the penitentiary has been on a continuing lockdown status for almost half a year due in part to an inmate-on-inmate stabbing death in August, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons and sources who work at the facility.

The outdoor yard at the U.S. penitentiary in Florence, in southwest Colorado, will be segregated into an unknown number of units, making it easier for guards to monitor inmate activity, workers at the prison say.

“The bureau said they were going to separate the yard up a little bit so that we don’t have to have as many inmates out at one time and they don’t have as big an area to wander around in,” said one veteran correctional worker who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know how many sections they’re going to divide it into. I know they’re out there putting fencing up right now.”

In April a massive riot in the yard that involved approximately 200 inmates ended with two prisoners killed by guard gunfire.

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.

After the yard riot the prison was put into lockdown status, in which inmates are generally confined to their housing units or cells and are not allowed to see visitors.

On Aug. 10, following only a few days of non-lockdown status, the penitentiary was put on lockdown again following what the bureau stated was an inmate-on-inmate assault at the time, and what has now been confirmed to have ended in the death of a another prisoner.

“Yes, the institution was locked down after the inmate homicide in August and social visiting has been suspended,” said bureau spokesperson Traci Billingsley. “We couldn’t speculate as to when the institution can return to normal operations.”

Although the new yard construction seems timely after the deadly riot, workers and the bureau say it’s a national move by the bureau following the murder of California correctional officer Jose Rivera by an inmate in June.

“It’s part of what came out of the Rivera murder in California,” says another guard familiar with the situation. “It’s been like this across the bureau.”

Billingsley stated that “the construction on the recreation yard is a result of modifications that all Bureau of Prisons penitentiaries are undergoing. It is unrelated to the lockdown.”

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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