In 2004, Colorado’s Crowley Correctional Facility was a bomb waiting to explode.
That was the message inmates and staff had been passing along for weeks to higher-ups, all the way to administrators.
But as a later investigation would determine, the Corrections Corporation of America-managed prison was unprepared.
Emergency training was lacking, the state found. Inmates and guards alike were worried there were too few guards, and too many of those guards lacked experience. And, as events unfolded, it became clear that corporate protocol would dictate the prison’s response to a riot.
On July 20, 47 corrections officers supervised 1,144 inmates. Eight were trainees. Some had been on the job for two days or less.
Early in the evening, prisoners in the yard demanded to see the warden. A captain stepped out to say he wouldn’t be coming.
The inmates got ugly. Guards retreated and were abruptly ordered to prepare for emergency evacuation.
No one quite knew who got out and who was left behind. It wasn’t known for hours, for instance, that a librarian huddled among bookshelves with 37 prisoners also hiding from the riot. No one knew where two religious volunteers were. Two stranded guards locked themselves in a cell for their own safety.
By then, prisoners had forced their way into a cell block, using weights to break windows.
At a prison control center, guards scrambled through a roof hatch. But they couldn’t lock it, leaving it open for rioting inmates to escape to the roof.
Inmates began destroying the cell block’s now-deserted control center and security system.
Walls and doors were broken. Water from broken pipes flooded floors. Cells were torched.
Inmates rifling through files found names of informants or sex offenders and assaulted them.
Driving to the scene, the state’s chief of prisons ordered the warden to use tear gas to push back the rioting inmates.
The warden refused. He wouldn’t use tear gas, he said, until he got permission from corporate headquarters.
About 30 minutes later, the corrections chief asked again. The warden refused again — CCA headquarters in Nashville had not gotten back to him.
By this time, inmates had climbed over fencing separating cell blocks. Flames reached 20 to 30 feet. The deputy warden admitted he did not have enough staff on hand to handle the prison’s operations plan.
By 10 p.m., tear gas was finally used.
At 1 a.m., the riot ended. More than 190 were injured, 13 were reported hospitalized.
Earlier this year, CCA agreed to pay 193 injured inmates a reported $600,000 to settle claims that CCA knew of the impending riot but did nothing to stop it. In a statement, CCA described the decision to settle as purely economic, and defended its employees’ actions the night of the riot as appropriate.
In a follow-up report, Colorado corrections officials ticked off a list of failures that contributed to the riot. Fundamental security measures were ignored, they wrote. Emergency response was hampered by inadequate — and inexperienced — staff.
And, in a nod to the tear gas confusion, the state wrote, CCA should consider giving its warden more authority in an emergency to act without the approval of corporate headquarters.