Colorado’s protective guard unit described as a Hellscape

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A new relationship between student lawyers and the Civil Rights Clinic associated with the University of Denver Sturm College of Law paints a horrible picture of the protection unit Buena Vista Correctional Institutiona Chaffee County complex overseen by the Colorado Department of Corrections. The unit is manned by inmates, including those who identify as LGBTQIA+, most at risk of abuse and worse from fellow inmates.

“Abused and Forgotten: Life Inside the BVCF Protective Custody Hallway,” published Aug. 3, describes the pod as “a terrifying, abysmal place to most people housed there. And it’s well known at CDOC that if a person is forced to go into protective custody – for example, by becoming a target after refusing their gang’s order to harm a staff member – they will likely end up serving their sentence in the miserable hallway.”

“There’s nothing that gives you hope,” notes an inmate quoted by authors Sam Battey, Kate Rosner and GC “It’s groundhog dayan ugly version of groundhog day.”

CDOC spokeswoman Annie Skinner rejects such characterizations. “While our department is always looking for ways to improve our results, we strongly disagree with the narrative created by the authors of this report,” she says. But Laura Rovner, a UA professor and director of the Civil Rights Clinic, who oversaw the project, defends the findings, which argue that a facility designed to protect vulnerable inmates systematically limits their ability to benefit from programs that can reduce their time behind bars while not preventing them from becoming victims of violence.

“One of the people we spoke to said, ‘My only options are to remain in protective custody and never get parole or go into mainstream sex offender treatment and risk being assaulted,'” Rover notes. “And we’ve also heard things like, ‘The cops ask me why I don’t walk away from gang life. And when I do, I get treated worse.'”

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Buena Vista Correctional Facility is part of the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, located at 15125 US 24 in Buena Vista, a city in Chaffee County.

According to Rovner, the Civil Rights Clinic’s work “generally focuses on constitutional issues for people in prison, and a few years ago we began to receive many complaints about Buena’s custody unit. Vista. We heard over and over again about the dangerous conditions that were really degrading, and that there was no way to warn people in an emergency. So we started to dig deeper into the matter, which was difficult because our research coincided with COVID. But we did open case requests and corresponded with people who were or are in the unit, and we found some really disturbing things.”

Remand units were already on Rovner’s radar. By the 1990s, she said, most state and federal correctional systems had created such spaces “to house people particularly vulnerable to prison violence – people who may have helped the government, members of gangs who have renounced their membership, people who have committed certain crimes that make them targets, people from the LGBTQIA+ community or people at high risk due to their physical characteristics.”

Colorado only launched its first remand unit in 2013, and even today there are still only two in the state, Buena Vista and the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in the Crowley County community of Ordway. While the Arkansas Valley Remand Unit provides “necessary parole programming, including sex offender treatment and drug and alcohol treatment,” Rovner says, the report finds that this is not the case at the Buena Vista unit – although it is available in the rest of the prison. As a result, “those classified as in need of preventive detention in Buena Vista are serving longer sentences, in some cases,” she adds.

Another major theme of the report concerns the section of the prison devoted to police custody. “It used to be a disciplinary segregation unit, and its layout is typical of disciplinary segregation,” says Rovner. “There’s this kind of boxcar cells that are side by side and all face down the hall – and that’s the whole unit. Normally there’s a day room, where people can go and congregate But this unit was not envisioned as a place where people were going to be out of their cells for long periods of time, and a lot of things flow from that.”

On the one hand, she continues, “people have no way of telling staff if someone has an emergency; we heard about it from people who had seizures and someone with diabetes and insulin And when there is violence there is no way to let people know when they are locked in their cells – no emergency call buttons like there are in other prisons to let the staff know what’s going on, people are literally knocking on their cell doors, those solid steel doors, to get the attention of the staff, who are at the end of this long, narrow corridor, for some reason So it can take hours for them to be noticed, which is an incredibly dangerous situation just waiting for a bad outcome.”

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The floor plan of the Remand Unit at Buena Vista Correctional Institution.

The problematic floor plan and lack of programming opportunities, including professional training, combine to create another problem. “People told us that because there was nothing to do, there was frequent physical abuse that they attributed to boredom, frankly, and those incredibly cramped quarters,” Rovner points out. “People are only allowed out of their cells for a few hours a day and there’s really nowhere to go because you’re just in this hallway narrow enough to touch either side if your arms are outstretched. So either they play cards, or they make hooch, jail wine – and that can lead to even more incidents, with no possibility of letting staff know if anyone has been injured.”

Such scenarios are even more concerning, Rovner believes, because “much of the physical abuse in the unit goes unaddressed, and staff have been verbally and at times physically abusive towards people forced to live there. I don’t want to paint with too wide of a brush, but there are a few staff who seem acutely aware that they have the ability to shoo someone out of custody – and if that happens, those people know that ‘they are in real danger.’ said someone was a child molester in front of other people in the unit, which is an extremely dangerous thing to say within earshot of other incarcerated people. sanity – but instead of decontaminating him in a cold shower, which you’re supposed to do, they put him in a hot shower, which amplifies the effect of the pepper spray, and left him there.”

The report’s recommendations include “transferring protective custody to someone else in the facility, so it doesn’t become a punitive experience for people who need it,” Rovner said. “We also call for sex offender treatment and drug and alcohol treatment to be offered in all custody units, and that specialist training be provided to staff, as it is extremely important that he is aware of the problems that the people there are And we have also asked the Inspector General of the Department of Corrections to carry out a full investigation of the unit, so that they can go even further than we have we were able to do it.

CDOC’s Skinner does not respond to these specific suggestions, but criticizes the manner in which the report was published. “We are disappointed that despite the department’s efforts to make meaningful changes in collaboration with the clinic, they chose to publish a document without giving us the opportunity to comment or provide factual information prior to publication,” she says.

Rovner rejects this assertion. She says the report team contacted CDOC Director Dean Williams in March 2021 to request a meeting to discuss concerns about the Buena Vista unit. When his group arrived for the meeting scheduled for April 5, Williams was unavailable, but they shared information with numerous other department administrators and a representative from the Colorado attorney general’s office. Three follow-up efforts, on April 8, April 22 and April 30, yielded no results, and no attempt to meet again with staff from the Colorado attorney general’s office in May, she said.

“Our invitation to CDOC officials to join us for a meeting with people incarcerated in the BVCF PC unit is still ongoing,” Rovner points out. “We remain available for such a meeting if the CDOC is interested.”

She adds: “The report is the product of hundreds of hours of painstaking and painstaking work by student lawyers at the Civil Rights Clinic, who conducted interviews and corresponded with more than forty people currently or formerly incarcerated in the BVCF PC unit. , reviewed documents obtained from CDOC via Open Record Requests, and reviewed documents filed publicly in connection with litigation involving custody at CDOC We stand by the report, including its findings and recommendations.

Click to read”Abused and forgotten: life in the corridor of preventive detention at the BVCF.”

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