Why Colorado sent an inmate to one of America’s most dangerous prisons

In January, 78 Colorado inmates were housed in out-of-state prisons, including one in Parchman, according to DOC

Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. According to DOC, an inmate sent to Parchman has been returned and is being housed in DRDC before likely moving again. (Photo by John Herrick)

Rats and roaches. Food trays strewn across the floor. Inmates pulling feces out of clogged toilets. That’s how Colorado inmate Jimmy Valanzuela described his living conditions in Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, where Colorado’s Department of Corrections had housed him for about 42 months because of safety and security reasons. 

Valanzuela, 48, told The Colorado Independent during a phone call from Parchman last month that he was cold and wearing three pairs of socks. He hadn’t showered in three weeks. He hadn’t seen daylight in six months. 

The notorious prison, for years underfunded and without federal oversight, recently has been roiled by gang violence and deteriorating conditions, at times without water, electricity or heat. Since New Year’s Eve, 10 people have died in the prison. On Jan. 28, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced he’s closing Parchman’s Unit 29, where Valanzuela was housed. And on Feb. 5, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into conditions there. 

Colorado’s Department of Corrections sent Valanzuela and his two brothers, Timmy and Michael, to prisons out of state following 2015 convictions for organized crime, attempted murder, and charges linked to a decade of gang violence targeting police informants and witnesses. Jefferson County prosecutors identified the three as leaders of a street gang. Jimmy was sentenced to more than 73 years in prison. His brothers received longer sentences. 

Corrections officials, through an agreement known as the Interstate Corrections Compact, are able to move inmates they think will cause trouble in Colorado’s prisons. It typically makes those transfers without notice to inmates and without informing their family members. As of Jan. 23, there were 78 Colorado inmates housed in out-of-state prisons and another 18 housed in federal prisons across the country, according to the department. Officials would not provide more detailed data, citing security reasons. 

Prison rights advocates acknowledge that the policy of shipping some inmates out of state has its advantages in maintaining safety in Colorado’s prisons. 

But those same advocates and some lawmakers say inmates are entitled to conditions that would meet Colorado’s health and safety standards, including those for medical treatment and time outside. 

“They shouldn’t be disadvantaged by being out of state,” said Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs.  

Among Valanzuela’s many worries at Parchman, he said during the phone interview, was that he hadn’t received medication for his Hepatitis C, a treatable disease that attacks the liver. 

“I haven’t been outside in probably over six months. They say due to short staff or lockdown or something. There is always a reason why they don’t let us outside,” he told The Independent during a 20-minute collect call. He said he also doesn’t know why Mississippi’s corrections department won’t provide his Hepatitis C treatment.

“Why? Why? Why? Here, nobody responds. When I first got here, they didn’t even tell me why I’m here,” he said.

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His sister, Melissa Valanzuela, who lives in Denver, said she contacted the Colorado Department of Corrections seeking help for his Hepatitis C more than a year ago. By law, following a $41 million settlement between Colorado and the ACLU in 2018, the state must offer Hepatitis C medicine to its inmates. Failure to do so, attorneys say, violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. The disease can become deadly and harder to treat as time drags on. 

Melissa is aware of the health risks. She already lost her brother Michael to esophagus cancer in 2018 while he was serving his Colorado sentence at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He was cremated and shipped home. 

“I don’t want to bring another brother home in a box,” she said. “… We can all make a bad choice. They’re dealing with the consequences. They don’t deny that. But they also have constitutional rights. They also have human rights. They also have medical rights whether they are in prison or not.” 

The outside of the Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary, or ADX, in Florence on July 19, 2019. One inmate was in Mississippi’s Parchman prison. (Photo by John Herrick)

The Mississippi Department of Corrections did not return requests for comment about Jimmy Valanzuela’s living conditions and medical treatment at Parchman. The Colorado Department of Corrections, for its part, said it cannot comment on an inmate’s medical condition. 

State corrections chief Dean Williams said he supports the policy of shipping inmates out of state for the purpose of maintaining safety and security in Colorado’s prisons. He noted that under terms of the interstate compact, his department loses some jurisdiction over inmates, including their medical care.

“I’m OK with it because the alternative is worse,” Williams said. “The alternative is that I withdraw myself from the interstate compact and I bring all the Coloradans back and I send all of the other states’ people back and I create more dangerous conditions.” 

Williams said he decided to relocate Valanzuela in January, not long after he first learned that Colorado had an inmate at Parchman. His decision came after media reports of an all-out war between gang members there and the release of photos taken with contraband cell phones from inside the prison. Reporters were calling DOC inquiring about Valanzuela. So, too, was Valanzuela’s lawyer, who is working to appeal his 2015 convictions. 

“Things were going from marginal or troubled to worse,” Williams said. “No one deserves to be in unsafe or dangerous conditions.” 

Williams wouldn’t say when or where he plans to relocate Valanzuela. The department refused to say when it made the decision and said it could not provide “any additional information on the specifics of Mr. Valanzuela’s status or planned movement.” Its web site indicated Friday he’s at the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center.

Melissa said she first learned her brother was in Colorado after speaking with his lawyer. She didn’t know where, nor for how long. She wants him to stay in Colorado. And despite his proximity — the closest he’s been to home in nearly four years — he likely will come and go without being able to see her.

“There is still the possibility they will ship him to another state again,” she said. 

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