Incarceration of Minorities

Courtesy of Denver Public Library - Western History Museum
Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Museum

In an ideal world penality would be objectively designed. Despite differences in wealth, social standing, or race everyone would be treated equally in both legal and correctional systems.[1] Unfortunately, the world we live in is far from perfect and the penal system is no exception. In recent years, the alleged “colorblindness” of American criminal justice has been questioned as the relationship between race and incarceration has been closely scrutinized. Civil rights and justice activist Michelle Alexander is one of many advocates for prison reform. In The New Jim Crow, she makes a convincing case that Blacks have been unjustly treated by the penal system. Alexander makes broad claims about prisons across the country, focusing primarily on the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans in relation to the so-called “War on Drugs” initiated in the 1980s. The present investigation, shaped by Alexander’s forceful argument, focuses on the impact of race in a single prison, the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), located in Cañon City. It explores how the incarceration and treatment of minorities reflects social values, and how sentences and conditions of imprisonment have changed over time, especially with regard to race in America. Here, CSP intake records, wardens’ reports, and Colorado census data between 1900 and 1985 will shed light on minorities’ higher incarceration rates, inquiring as well whether persons of color have been treated differently behind bars.

While Alexander focuses her research on the prison system after the “War on Drugs” during the 1970’s and 80’s, the current study examines CSP at various points both before and after the war on drugs. In The New Jim Crow Alexander claims, “Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable. . .the rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged.”[2] The 1900 Warden’s Report supports Alexander’s assertion that racism is “highly adaptable.” Indeed, the rates of incarceration for minorities at the turn of the twentieth century were disproportionally high at CSP.[3] While minorities accounted for just two percent of Colorado’s overall population then, they made up over twelve percent of CSP inmates. Blacks (1.6 percent of Colorado population in 1900) made up eight percent of the prison population and persons identified as “Mexicans” made up close to five percent of the prison population (data not included in the 1900 census). Minorities were also far more likely to receive life sentences. Although Blacks made up only eight percent of CSP, they received eleven percent of the life sentences.[4]

Discrepancy between treatment of persons of color and whites was even more apparent for the Latino prison population.  Latinos identified as “Mexicans” made up only four percent of the CSP population but accounted for an astounding thirty-three percent of life sentences.[5] Archival intake data thus demonstrates that long before the “War on Drugs,” minorities were incarcerated at higher rates and punished more harshly than their white counterparts. The laconic comments of intake officers only gesture toward an account for the reasons behind this disproportion, raising the question why minorities experienced higher incarceration rates and longer sentences than their white counterparts. The short answer is found in social circumstances broader than the structure of the penal system: explicit racism was present in all aspects of society during the early twentieth century, including corrections facilities. Understanding how race influenced the penal system requires awareness of societal conditions in the Colorado and, more broadly, the U.S. at the time. In 1900 Colorado was overwhelmingly white (ninety-eight percent). The remaining two percent of the population were 1.6 percent Black and 0.4 “other Races.”  Evidently, census statistics were based on a white/black binary. In 1900 the total U.S. population was 87.8 percent White, 11.6 percent Black, and .5 percent “other.”[6]


Historical discrimination against people of color

Although minorities made up only a small percentage of the people of Colorado, they faced many discriminating obstacles. Mexicans, who had lived in Colorado long before white settlers, were discriminated against in inequitable land policies.[7] In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought the Mexican American War to an end and forced Mexico to cede much of its territory in North America, including land that later became Colorado.[8] Although this treaty was supposed to protect Mexican families’ land rights in the newly acquired territory, relevant treaty clauses were largely ignored and “Mexican Americans lost eighty percent of their original land grants, some to conniving lawyers and land developers, others because of high property taxes imposed on Mexican-American owners-in some cases five times higher than those paid by their Anglo neighbors.”[9] Such land loss occurred because property-holding Mexican families were seen as an obstacle to American “Manifest Destiny” in the west.[10]

Explicit racism against Blacks, too, was rampant in the early twentieth century in Colorado and across the country. In 1896, the landmark Supreme Court decision Plessey vs. Ferguson gave constitutional backing to Jim Crow and racial segregation. Racial violence was also epidemic. Between 1886 and 1900 more than 2,500 African-Americans were lynched, mostly in the South.[11] Although acts of racist violence were less common in the Rocky Mountain region than in the states of the old Confederacy, they did occur in Colorado. In 1893, for instance, a sixteen-year-old year old black boy was arrested for allegedly killing an eleven-year-old white girl, Louise Front. While the accused teenager was being transported by train to Limon, Colorado, to await trial, he was seized by masked men, doused in kerosene and burned alive.[12] The then-governor and future member of the U.S. Senate, Charles Thomas, reflected the racist attitudes of the time, calling the killing, “regrettable but necessary to uphold Anglo-Saxon justice.”[13]


The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado

In 1924 the Colorado penal system was dramatically altered by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920’s Denver suffered a sharp increase in “prostitution, bootlegging, and prohibition violations,” while law enforcement came to be viewed as “ineffective and corrupt.”[14] The Klan capitalized on this public view of civil disorder by campaigning against the general “lawlessness” and rapid social change of the 1920’s. In practice this translated into “taking a stand” against immigrants and minorities, who “stole” white Americans’ jobs.[15] The Klan also focused on restoring “order” by strictly upholding newly established Prohibition statutes.

Virtually identical rhetoric of “restoring order” and being “tough on crime” was again widely used by public officials in the 1970’s and 1980’s during the “War on Drugs.” As Alexander notes, the War on Drugs allowed for colorblind “rhetoric on crime, welfare, taxes, and states’ rights… clearly understood by white (and black) voters as having a racial dimension, although claims to that effect were impossible to prove.”[16] Politicians in both parties claimed to be “tough on crime” in order to win votes. Eerily analogously, the rhetoric deployed by the Klan during the twenties appears to have worked too: by 1925, the Klan controlled the Colorado House of Representatives, Senate, state Supreme Court judge, seven Denver District Court benches, and various Colorado city councils.[17]

Activities of chapters of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado during the 1920s differed from contemporary analogues in the South. While the Klan in the South was primarily concerned with terrorizing Blacks, “knights” in Colorado were more concerned with consolidating political power and restoring “order.” In a letter addressed to Rev. Gus Ramage in April of 1923, Klan leaders made their position clear, stating, “We are a Christian militant organization and are ever ready to stand behind the Protestant Church as long as it remains Protestant. We are not Anti-Catholic, Anti-Jew, Anti-Negro, or Anti-anything, but are PRO-AMERICAN.”[18] The Klan in Colorado understood that the radical racism it shared with white supremacists across the old Confederacy needed to find expression different from that of its Southern counterpart. The Colorado Klan adapted to regional social and political constructs by masking its racism in nationalistic rhetoric. This rhetorical reframing was nothing new. European settlers had used nationalist rhetoric to justify the genocide and relocation of Native Americans. In the 1970’s President Nixon would make a comparable rhetorical move when he appealed to the “silent majority” of Americans who opposed “radical” social change and the Civil Rights Movement. Nationalism and racism often appear hand in hand in American history.[19]

Meanwhile, as the Klan held political power in Colorado between 1924 and 1928, the Colorado State Penitentiary correspondingly incarcerated a high number of immigrants and Catholics. The Twenty-Fifth Biennial Wardens Report (1925-1926) shows that over thirty-nine percent of the total prison population was Catholic.[20] The prior census had not provided data on religious affiliations, but it is well known that Protestants greatly outnumbered Catholics in Colorado at this time. Immigrants accounted for only 12.7 percent of Colorado’s total population in 1920, yet they made up twenty-one percent of CSP’s inmate population.[21] The ethnic group of immigrants most likely to be incarcerated was Mexican. While Mexicans accounted for only 9.2 percent of Colorado’s total immigrant population, they nonetheless made up forty-six percent of CSP’s immigrant prison population. From 1927 to 1928, the warden’s report similarly shows that the prisoner population was over thirty-six percent Catholic and over seventeen percent minorities (fifty-two percent Mexican and fourteen percent Italian).[22]

How did the Klan manage to incarcerate so many minorities and Catholics during its brief time in power? Evidently the Klan had control of the Colorado penal system. William Candlish, a Klansman, was appointed chief of police in Denver in 1924, and “any Protestant policeman who refused to fill out a Klan membership application was relegated to night shifts on undesirable beats.”[23] At the same time the “Denver District Judge Clarence Morley also was a Klansman,” and “[c]ourts often drew juries from Klan membership lists.”[24] The Ku Klux Klan thus used its political and judicial influences during the 1920’s to declare a “war on crime” decades before Reagan’s “war on drugs,” with intentions and effects similar to those of Republican national administrations of later decades.

The Klan’s most effective tool in its “war on crime” was enforcement of statutes aimed at prevention of alcohol consumption. The Prohibition movement was founded in the early twentieth century by anti-saloon leagues and evangelical Protestants who viewed “saloon culture” and urban growth as detrimental to society. In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, banning the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquor. Under direct pressure from the Klan, Colorado legislators made the punishment of violating prohibition extreme, passing a bill that made the “ownership or operation of [alcohol] still a felony.”[25] Of course the Klan’s real concern was not with the alcohol, but with the “criminals” and “degenerates” who drank it. Often these “criminals” were minorities and immigrants.

During the early twentieth century, Mexican immigration to the U.S. was at an all-time high. In fact, “Between 1900 and 1930 more than 1,000,000 Mexicans came into the United States from Mexico.”[26] Many Mexican immigrants were Catholic.  Quite unrelatedly, they drank alcohol. This behavior infuriated Colorado’s Klansmen, who saw Mexican immigrants as a direct threat to the “American way of life.” The Klan viewed Italian immigrants (also predominantly Catholic and often disregarding prohibition by making and drinking their own wine) in the same way.[27]

Prison records suggest that prohibition laws were used in Colorado to legally discriminate against religious and ethnic minorities as well as these immigrants. The Twenty Fifth Biennial Wardens Report (1925-1926) provides a shocking statistic. More than twenty-five percent of crimes committed were related to the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol.[28] Over a quarter of the inmate population was incarcerated by an Amendment that only lasted fourteen years. Given that close to forty percent of CSP’s inmate population was Catholic and 12.7 percent were immigrants, clearly many of these minority inmates must have been incarcerated for alcohol-related infractions.[29] Immigrants, minorities, and Catholics were alike persecuted by the Klan’s “war on crime,” and were incarcerated by the deployment of discriminatory penal practices.


Incarceration as social control

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander claims that the “War on Drugs” was, in a fashion closely analogous to racialized discrimination in earlier decades, declared for the same purpose: to oppress minorities. Alexander writes, “In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration’s War on Drugs. At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation. This fact was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do about with public concern about race.”[30]  Thus the real objective of both prohibition and the “War on Drugs” was to restore “order” by oppressing minority groups, and had less to do with banning substances than exercising social control.

Again, history was repeating itself.  After the fall of the Klan in 1928, minorities had continued to be incarcerated at significantly higher rates than whites. In 1946 this trend escalated dramatically. According to 1950 census data the population of non-whites was still fewer than two percent, yet minorities now made up twenty-eight percent of the CSP population, with Latinos accounting for twenty-one percent and Blacks accounting for seven percent.[31] At the same time, however, the Civil Rights Movement swept the nation, bringing with it legislative and social changes. In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, a law aiming to end legal barriers to voting by African-Americans at the state and local levels. Martin Luther King and others led non-violent civil rights protests calling for equality. Although the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in ending racial segregation, however, it had no effect on the racial disparities within CSP. As the twenty-first century drew closer, the racialization of incarceration in Colorado had not changed. After Jim Crow ended, racism within the prison system once again “evolved” and became what Alexander would describe as officially “race neutral,” yet the incarceration rates of racial and ethnic minorities continued to increase.  The “racially sanitized rhetoric of cracking down on crime” made it difficult to pinpoint a newly “evolved” racism.[32] The Colorado Prison Study, September 1974 provides evidence that racial bias within the Colorado penal system had dramatically increased despite the social efforts of the Civil Rights Movement and the legislative “victories” for racial equality. In 1974 after complaints of “racial disturbances,” the Colorado Advisory Committee investigated the issue of race in all Cañon City prisons. Unsurprisingly, researchers found a disproportionate number of minorities imprisoned, racism in the job placement for inmates, and shockingly few correctional officers of color.[33]

Researchers found that minorities made up fifty-three percent of the CSP population but only accounted for eighteen percent of Colorado’s total population. African Americans accounted for 3.4 percent of Colorado’s total population but over twenty percent of CSP’s inmate population, while Latinos accounted for 13.1 percent of Colorado’s total population but over thirty-two percent of CSP’s inmate population. Meanwhile, whites accounted for eighty-two percent of Colorado’s total population, but only forty-six percent of CSP’s inmate population.[34]  While wardens’ reports had recorded the over-incarceration of minorities for decades, never before had a private study been conducted on institutional racism within the CSP. The 1974 survey uncovered a broad variety of racial discrepancies. Although prison officials claimed that housing and job placement were assigned “randomly,” statistical data from the study proved otherwise. Of all the living quarters, the prisoners interviewed in the study preferred Cell House Six, which was 63.3 percent White, 13.6 percent Black, and 21.2 percent Latino.[35] Inmates of color were meanwhile given less desirable jobs. The study shows that minorities were given the “hard” and “dirty” jobs while whites were assigned to the “clean” and “easy” ones. The most desirable jobs were in the hospital (twenty-two percent minority workers), control center (nine percent minorities), storeroom (twenty-four percent minorities), west gate (twenty-four percent minorities), and electric shop (zero persons of color). The least desirable jobs, again with the percent of minority workers in parentheses, were in the boiler house (eighty percent minorities), coal pile (sixty-four percent minorities), laundry (seventy-seven percent minorities), kitchen (seventy-four percent minorities), and janitorial (seventy percent minorities).[36]

The Colorado Prison Study, September 1974 was assembled by the Colorado Advisory Committee and given directly to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. The production of this report itself reflects public concern. Before this time, it seemed no one cared enough to investigate “racial disturbances” the report was intended to explore.  However, statistics from the 1985-1986 Warden’s Report show that the independent study had little impact on the ground in Cañon City with respect to the over-incarceration of minorities. In 1985 Blacks made up only 3.5 percent of Colorado’s total population, but accounted for 19.2 percent of CSP’s inmate population. Latinos were 11.8 percent of Colorado’s total population, but accounted for 23.1 percent of CSP’s inmate population.[37]

One explanation for this lack of progress—an account Alexander supports—is that President Reagan officially declared his “War on Drugs” in October 1982, and “[p]ractically overnight the budgets of federal law enforcement agencies soared. Between 1980 and 1984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million.” Programs like “Operation Pipeline” and the “Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant” received heavy funding from the Federal Government. These programs incentivized law enforcement to crack down on drug-related crimes, and disproportionately damaged minority communities.[38] Data from the 1985 CSP Warden’s Report provides conflicting evidence. According to the report, drug-related offenses accounted for only five percent of total crimes committed. While this figure may not seem high, drug charges were the fourth most common of felonies represented.[39] Unfortunately, the warden’s report does not connect race with specific charges. Statistics provided in The New Jim Crow, alongside the practice of incarceration in Colorado’s flagship prison, nevertheless affirm that a disproportionally high number of minority prisoners were incarcerated for drug related charges, so exacerbating the existing racism of carceral practice in the Rocky Mountain region.


Past informs present

In the last hundred years of its long and complicated history, the CSP has adapted to many societal changes: the early days of western expansion, the reign of the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights Movement, and the age of mass incarceration. While some positive changes have shaped society in regard to racial discrimination, the over-incarceration of minorities has gotten progressively worse. Colorado Department of Corrections reports show that racial inequality within the Colorado penal system is still a huge issue. In 2006 more than twenty-eight thousand people were incarcerated in DOC facilities. The statistics on race and incarceration show radical disproportion: Latinos account for 17.1 percent of the population in Colorado, but make up 29.9 percent of the prison population. Blacks make up 3.8 percent of Colorado’s population, but represent 20.7 percent of the state’s prison population. Whites, however, are 74.5 percent of the state’s population, but only account for 46.4 percent of the prison population.[40] The mass incarceration of minorities is a serious issue of which too few Coloradoans or other Americans are aware.

How can this racialized injustice be addressed? As Alexander states, “The prevailing caste system cannot be successfully dismantled with a purely race-neutral approach.”[41] In-depth study of CSP shows that changes in public policy intended to address racism have had remarkably little effect on the incarceration rates of minorities. Racism in the penal system is reflective of racism within society at large—only it is th more ineradicable. In order to reform the penal system, we must first fundamentally change the way we think about race in America.

[1] Originally researched and drafted by Evan Miyawaki.

[2] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (New York: The New Press, 2010), 21.

[3] State of Colorado, Bureau of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1899-1900, 118-141.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] U.S. Census Bureau, “Statistics of Population,” 1900.

[7] Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Home-Grown Racism: Colorado’s Historic Embrace – and Denial – of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama School of Law, 1999), 721-722.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Reginald Horsman, “Anglo Saxons and Mexicans,” in Race and Manifest Destiny, (Boston, Harvard University Press, 1981), 208-213.

[11] The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Civil Rights Chronology, accessed November 6, 2015,

[12] Delgado and Stefancic, 720.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 724.

[15] Ibid., 725.

[16] Alexander, 48.

[17] Robert Alan Goldberg, “Klan Control of Politics,” in Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 68-83.

[18] Ed Quillen, Welcome to Kolorado, Klan Kountry,” Colorado Springs Independent, May 22, 2003, accessed November 8, 2015,

[19] Etienne Balibar, “Racism and Nationalism,” in Nations and Nationalism: A Reader, edited by Phillip Spencer and Howard Wolman(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 163-72.

[20] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1925-26, 56.

[21] U.S. Census Bureau, “Statistics of Population,” 1920; State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1925-26, 33.

[22] State of Colorado, Bureau of Corrections, Biennial Report 1927-28, 35.

[23] Delgado and Stefancic, 726.

[24] Ibid., 727.

[25] Cara Degette, “When Colorado was Klan Country,” Colorado Independent, January 9, 2009.

[26] Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 1908-1932,

accessed November 8, 2015,

[27] Delancey Place, Political Alliances- The KKK and the Anti-Saloon League Big Think, Think Big, accessed November 8, 2015,

[28] Biennial Report. . .1925-26, 35.

[29] Ibid,.

[30] Alexander, 49.

[31] State of Colorado, Bureau of Corrections, Biennial Report 1946-47, 19.

[32] Alexander, 43.

[33] U.S. Department of Justice, Colorado Advisory Committee, Colorado Prison Study, September 1974.

[34] Ibid., 43.

[35] Ibid., 47.

[36] Ibid., 53.

[37] U.S. Census Bureau, “Statistics of Population,” 1980; State of Colorado, Department of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1985-86.

[38] Alexander, 70.

[39] Biennial Report. . .1985-86, 58.

[40] Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Colorado Prison Facts 2006, accessed November 6, 2015,

[41] Alexander, 239.