Limon Prison incentives keep inmates in check
November 27, 2010
LIMON (AP) - Stacey Torres earned his way into one of the most dangerous prisons in Colorado with 66 rule violations for fighting, dealing drugs and defying officers -- all while already doing time.
He was facing another stint at the maximum-security Colorado State Penitentiary when he was offered a spot in a pilot program called STAR, or Security Threat Administrative Review.
The 42-year-old habitual criminal has gone write-up-free since then, while doing homework in a series of cognitive-behavior classes. Torres is just one of many gangsters, lifers and killers at Limon Correctional Facility whose demeanor is changing. Along the way, he has learned a new vocabulary.
"I have to remain humble and swallow my pride," he said.
STAR is one of the new initiatives the Colorado Department of Corrections is trying at Limon designed to curb violence throughout the system in a prison known for problems.
Other new ideas at Limon are designed to provide incentives for good behavior, including giving some inmates perks such as padded chairs, early meals, a large flat-screen TV and inmate-purchased DVDs of "Avatar," "Twilight" and "Rambo."
"In general population, trouble comes right at you," said Gregory Reed, 52, serving 40 years for robberies. "Here, things are more even-keel. There's minimal peer pressure. The stress level is lower. This is more of a safe haven."
Limon's long history of inmate violence, including two fatal stabbings in five years and the beating death of a correctional officer, made it an unlikely candidate for testing more humane behavior-modification techniques. But the proof of the programs' success is in the numbers.
In the past 14 months, the 260 inmates in the "Incentive Unit" in cellblocks 5 and 6, who constitute 27 percent of the prison's total population, committed just 26 rule violations -- 2 percent of the 1,253 violations committed by all inmates.
"We have some of the most dangerous, defiant prisoners in the prison system," said Warden Angel Medina.
Before STAR, inmates with disciplinary problems were shuffled through the system through progressively more restrictive confinement until they reached the state's maximum-security prison at Canon City.
But through classes designed to teach inmates how to better control their emotions, STAR gives them a chance to gradually earn their way back into the general population and avoid that steady slide.
At the same time, the new incentive program at Limon allows inmates in the general population to trade up through good behavior into better living conditions.
The STAR and Incentive Unit programs have won broad acceptance from prisoners and staff, Medina said.
Only prisoners who have not had a serious infraction for two years can go to the incentive cellblocks, and there is a waiting list, said Sgt. Clint Flory.
Though the incentives are modest, they make a powerful difference to inmates such Byron Cortez, 47, a habitual robber who is serving a 130-year sentence.
Cortez said he can spend twice as much time in the pod common area then general-population inmates. Incentive-block prisoners have exercise equipment in the day room, unlike in general-population pods. They have a big-screen TV and cushioned seats instead of steel chairs. They are the first inmates to line up for food and to go to the yard. They can buy a larger assortment of goods in the prison canteen.
The perks do not go unnoticed, even by the STAR inmates who might be years away from becoming eligible to watch movies on a flat screen.
Justin Martinez, 27, who has been in prison since he was 17 on aggravated-robbery convictions out of Denver, had been regressing with dozens of prison violations, moving him from lesser- to higher-security prisons. Then, faced with a choice between being locked down most of the time in Canon City or enrolling in the STAR program, he chose Limon.
He has been taking two different classes a week and is at the highest of three STAR levels, weeks from graduating and going to a transition unit before returning to the general population.
He has been following the rules, largely because of the impact his bad behavior has had on his parents.
"They see everything I've done. It's hard to see the hurt that it has caused," Martinez said. He dreams of paroling out and working in the family restaurant.
It's a whole different philosophy from the con code in prison. In his STAR classes, he does role-playing, such as how to better respond if insulted.
Sgts. Patricia Banks and Barbara Martinez and their staff have unusual powers designed specially for the STAR unit, which opened in June.
Instead of discipline by committee taking as long as 10 days to sort out, they have the authority to instantly regress inmates to lower levels with fewer privileges or require them to write a report that traces what led to bad decisions.
Of eight inmates who started the program, five graduated in September and none has regressed so far. Medina expects setbacks, but the system is designed for ups and downs. There are 48 inmates currently in STAR.
Prison counselor Roberta Walters, who has been tracking the behavior of Limon inmates for many years, has noted startling improvements in seemingly incorrigible offenders.
"I've seen a lot of changes in inmates," Walters said. "I believe in the program, and I believe they believe in the program."
The STAR and Incentive programs have promoted unusual con behavior, said program supervisor Ken Sokol. Instead of negative peer pressure, he has seen inmates coaxing peers to follow the rules.
"They keep each other in check," Sokol said.