Ready to blow

A six-part investigative report on Colorado prisoners being abused in a Texas prison for profit and the ensuing cover-up by the Colorado Department of Corrections | by Joel Dyer & Wayne Laugesen, July to October, 1995

Boulder Weekly Staff | Boulder Weekly

Anyone who has been reading Boulder Weekly over the past 20 years knows that reporting on prison issues, including the abuse of prisoners, is a very high priority for the paper. Prisoners, whether in our city and county jails or our state prison system, are an incredibly vulnerable population. This is because they are both out of sight from those who would seek to protect them from abuse and sadly, because our society tends not to care what happens to people who have been convicted of a crime. And so it is only logical that this lack of oversight and concern for prisoners is heightened all the more when those prisoners are shipped thousands of miles away from their home state to serve their sentences. That was the situation when our “Ready to blow” investigation took place, and it still stands as some of the most important work ever produced by this paper because it likely saved lives by causing a despicable excuse for a prison in Texas that was holding Colorado inmates to be shut down permanently.

Prison isn’t supposed to be fun, but when Colorado prisoners complained they were being abused in a Bowie County, Texas, jail to which they’d been sent by the Colorado Department of Corrections supposedly due to overcrowding in our state, CDOC officials turned a deaf ear. Good thing Boulder Weekly was listening, literally.

The paper ran two cover stories and four additional follow-up stories that detailed the alleged abuses and terrible conditions to which Colorado prisoners were being subjected, including having Mace sprayed in their eyes as they arrived on the bus their very first day in Texas, reportedly just to remind them that they weren’t in Colorado anymore.

In some cases, 24 prisoners were being kept in the same cell with one toilet with no privacy walls. The makeshift prison was an old mail warehouse that had been retrofitted with bars so that Bowie County could make money by holding prisoners from other states. The plumbing was ancient and inadequate, and prisoners complained that the floors of their cells were often covered with raw sewage. The Colorado prisoners were forced to spend 23 hours of each day locked down together, as the facility had no cafeteria, no prison yard and no classes or any other forms of treatment designed to foster rehabilitation.

From the beginning, the Weekly’s articles were met with opposing statements from Ari Zavaras, then head of the CDOC, claiming that the Texas prison was just fine and that the inmates were exaggerating their plight. He also took time to say the Weekly’s investigation was misinformed. Then came the first riot. BW reported that the prisoners were gassed and beaten in their cells and that the riot had lasted well into the evening. Zavaras quickly countered that there had been no riot at all in Texas and that the Weekly had apparently been duped.

The lead on our next story was short and to the point: “Ari Zavaras is a liar.” What Zavaras didn’t know at the time of his denial is that in its effort to maximize profit off the Colorado inmates, Bowie County had installed payphones in every cell that charged rates as much as 10 times what the rest of us pay for a phone call, and on the day of the July 21 riot, inmates in several of the cells called the Weekly’s office and Dyer and Laugesen listened to and recorded the entire riot from beginning to end, every scream and gas canister. Inmates in different sections of the jail told the same story of how the guards in gas masks were systematically working their way through each wing of the building hitting every cell regardless of the behavior of the inmates inside.

Inmate James Dixon described to the Weekly how the old men in his cell, several with health problems, were huddling in the corner in fear. Dixon pleaded with the guards not to gas them.

“After that,” says Dyer, “all we heard was screaming and cries for help as the guards gassed the cell.”

To say that the Weekly’s relationship with the CDOC was strained at the time is an understatement. Finally, in the Aug. 3 article, a guard at the Bowie County facility confessed to the Weekly that inmates had, in fact, been abused and that the conditions were at least as bad as had been reported by the paper. After the story ran, at least two more riots broke out at the facility.

Finally, despite the continued denials by Zavaras and the CDOC that there was anything wrong in Texas, a federal judge suspended Denver’s $20,000-per-day payment to the Texas jail after officials at the Bowie County facility refused to allow attorneys and an independent prison expert to investigate conditions. Eventually, the attorneys and the inspector were allowed to enter the prison and they confirmed that the conditions were actually even worse than what the Weekly had reported. The investigation eventually moved forward and led to a televised debate between the Weekly’s Joel Dyer and the CDOC’s Ari Zavaras, as well as a state investigation that confirmed allegations made by Boulder Weekly. The Colorado prisoners were then moved to a different, much better facility and the Bowie County jail was closed down.

“This series is a great example of the responsibility we feel at this paper to give voice to the voiceless,” says Dyer. “Whether it’s prisoners, the poor, the homeless or the abused, it’s our job to speak up for the people that far too often in our society become invisible to the rest of us.”