Prison to DOC

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

What is the purpose of prison? Recent events involving police brutality as well as the recent prominence of the topic of mass incarceration in public discourse in America alike beg this question.[1]  The perspective of the persons in charge of the system is an important element in the discussion. These corrections professionals are part of a U.S. criminal justice system under increased public scrutiny. Many critics of penology and penal facilities cite the “War on Drugs,” promoted by President Richard Nixon in 1971, as the beginning of the modern era of incarceration. What did the authorities of the prison system at the time of Nixon’s presidency believe was the purpose of incarceration? What problems did they see with the system as it functioned then? And what was their idea of a well-run prison? These questions may be explored in the history of the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City.

The Drug War Era (1971 and following) brought many changes to the incarceration system in Cañon City as elsewhere—primarily in an unprecedented influx of inmates due to stricter sentences for drug-related crimes.[2] As a result, managing the prison became less the job of the principal state prison’s warden and more the responsibility of the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) as mandated by the state legislature. Prior to the creation of the DOC, “the wardens had full authority over the prisons, but in the 1970s the federal courts took a hand in the running of prisons through court decisions based on lawsuits filed by inmates.”[3] Established in 1977, the Colorado DOC, an agency continuing today to exist in essentially the same form, operates all twelve state correctional facilities.[4] The rapid uptick in the state prison population during the period of its creation forced the DOC to put the reformist mission of former Colorado State Penitentiary warden Wayne K. Patterson on hold.


Warden to superintendent

Superintendent H. B. “Benny” Johnson stepped in at the height of this change.  In oral history of Johnson’s administration, he comments that the prison system now operated on a professional basis rather than the ‘good ole boy’ system. Most positions in the corrections department were now held by college graduates, usually with a degree in a relevant field such as criminal justice or psychology.

Under this newly professionalized system, Johnson initiated a variety of progressive programs. Inmates had asked for “regional directors,” coordinators to keep all of the corrections officers connected and working together, and the superintendent accommodated their request.[5] Johnson also began the Wild Horse Program, about which he was skeptical, but the results were better than he expected. Inmates who were usually anti-social and aggressive were becoming more talkative and loving towards their horses.[6] Both internal management and animal husbandry programs initiated by Johnson provided inmates with a greater sense of responsibility and power.

Another influential manager at CSP in the period after the 1976 shift from wardenship to superintendence has been Donice Neal, the first woman superintendent in Colorado. Neal is a strong symbol of change because she is the first female superintendent, but she is also noted for a philosophy of professionalism. She believes “inmates are in prison as punishment, not for punishment.” It was not, nor did she see it as her role, to punish the inmates for every minute action once inside the prison.[7] This attitude contrasts sharply with the legacy of Warden Roy Best, who took it upon himself to physically punish unruly inmates.  While little is said in public records or anecdotal reports about the personal relationships between superintendents and inmates in the past thirty years, relationships have evidently been more professional than were connections between wardens and inmates prior to 1976.

In general, the DOC has shifted its focus to managing larger populations and legal backlogs. The DOC’s Annual Report, which compiles information on all prisons in the state, became the measure of correctional success in place of earlier warden’s reports for the individual prisons. Like DOC publications, media and public discussion of the prisons of Cañon City during the Drug War Era acknowledged that the focus of incarceration at the time was the management of an overcrowded prison population. In fact, a 1983 article by Duane Noriyuki in the Cañon City Daily Record en titled “’New Kid on the Block’ faces long-term DOC problems” identifies an increasing prison population as the principal problem facing Chase Riveland, newly appointed executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. “The biggest weaknesses in the system are caused by the numbers. It’s difficult when you’re at or exceeding 100 percent capacity. You want to be at eighty percent or ninety percent to run in a productive, and safe way,” said Riveland. Productivity, to the new DOC director, meant managing the prison population to avoid moving current inmates around to make room for incoming inmates.[8] The 1985-1986 Annual DOC report echoes Riveland’s concerns about the state’s prison population. The opening paragraphs of the sixty-four-page document make clear that the increasing prison population shaped the correctional system of the time. First, the document reports the extent of the population growth the Colorado prison system experienced in the previous year, a thirty-one percent increase since 1980. The document then explains that, “Stiffer sentencing laws, increased commitment, and a general increase in the state’s population contributed to this increased growth.”[9]

The 1985-86 DOC report offers further statements about burgeoning prison population, then describe its plan for alleviating the issue of overcrowding. The intermediate solution it proposes is the creation of temporary beds at several of the state’s prisons until permanent beds can be financed and built.[10] The introduction of this document clarifies that not only was controlling the dramatically increasing prison population the central administrative concern of the Colorado DOC at the time, but also that the test of prison success was how well it could manage the prison population. The 1985-86 report goes on to explain that, “Although the ever-present problem of population increases has consumed many manpower hours, employees have managed to accomplish many innovative and effective enhancements to the state’s correctional services.”[11] These new instruments included a parole classification system, the creation of a computerized system for tracking interstate parolees and probationers, and building projects to increase prison capacity.[12]


Department of Corrections priorities

The 1985-86 report from the Office of the Executive Director reveals several more of the DOC’s values at the time, particularly in the section titled “Milestones/Future,” notably that “[m]aintaining reasonable and humane conditions of confinement is a high priority of the Department. It is the intent of this Department to provide the required constitutional conditions with the available resources not only in housing, but also in offender programs and healthcare. Also with this arena the resolution of the litigation, particularly the “Ramos v. Lamm” suit is a priority of the Department.”[13]

In the lawsuit referenced here, an inmate named Ramos sued the DOC—and by extension the State of Colorado, whose then-governor was Richard Lamm—for creating unsafe conditions in the maximum-security unit of the Colorado State Penitentiary.[14] The position of these remarks in the document in relation to statements about prison population illustrates that safety and related litigation concerns lie beneath the priority of population management. Here the DOC report of the mid-80s suggests that the prison administration was reactionary, and that minimal legal compliance rather than progress toward better prison conditions was the department’s real intent.

John Lemons’ 1987 article entitled “DOC Facilities, Staff Reflect Changes in American Society,” published in a Cañon City periodical, shows how public opinion, aroused by legal action, began to influence authorities’ view of corrections as the War on Drugs developed.  Lemons’ article describes the DOC’s shift from the term “guard” to the term “corrections officer” to describe prison staff as a significant change reshaping how prison staff and the public viewed their jobs. “Under the old system the warden had the last word in the prison system, and there was no appeal of his decisions. Guards, a term now considered derogatory, marched the inmates to and from their cells in formations.”[15] Once again, the direct responsibility of the warden was reduced during this period in its direct subordination to the overarching DOC. Lemons continues, explaining how prison staff’s approach to interacting with inmates changed in parallel. Previously, “[c]asual talking between inmates and officers was discouraged. If an inmate wanted to talk to an officer, he took off his hat and folded his arms across his chest.” However, beginning in the late 1980’s, prison staff began to be trained in crisis intervention and supported by mental health professionals.[16] Although Lemons notes that these reforms were not fully implemented until the 1980’s, he dates their origin as the Civil Rights Era.[17]

In the context of increasing prison population and changing patterns of control of inmates, the struggling DOC and the Colorado state legislature nonetheless began to reintroduce reformist measures. In an article from the early 1990’s, staff writer for the Cañon City Gazette Telegraph Ray Broussard reports on a group of lawmakers who visited several of the prisons in Cañon City to get a first-hand understanding of the problems facing the prison system. One of the most significant problems these lawmakers observed was the lack of useful job training. “We have got to get the money and the expertise to come up with something that will get these people worthwhile paying jobs when they get out,” stated one of the senators. The group also noted the need for more minority workers within the prison system to better relate with the inmates.[18] Although these reforms proved difficult to achieve, expressions of legislative concern affirms that the 1990’s DOC remained concerned with physical conditions and rehabilitative opportunities.

Arguably the most significant change made during this time was the professionalization of the correction system. A 1991 Pueblo Chieftain article titled “Prison Staffs Have Become Professional” reports several elements of this reform. Like the Lemons article several years earlier, this account notes the shift from the term ‘guard’ to identification of prison staff as ‘corrections officers’ as mirroring an important change in attitude among prison staff and authorities in Cañon City. “The movement from guard to corrections officer came about as a result of emphasis on training, education, and a change in attitude. One change was an effort to see inmates as individuals who should be treated as human beings.” The establishment of a Department of Corrections training academy for new prison employees, the initiation of a corrections curriculum at Pueblo Community College leading to an associate of arts degree in corrections, and the increase in education requirements for prison employees in the 1970’s were all manifestations of this change in attitude. The article goes on to explain, “The philosophy today is that the inmate is being punished when he or she is sent to prison, but that the prison staff if not there to punish them further, but to manage them.”[19] This new focus on professionalism, alongside an increased focus on reform, can be seen in the most recent DOC reports.


Contemporary vision

Today, as the Colorado DOC has come to manage a drastically larger prison population, its mission has begun to swing back towards that of reform. In the 2015-2016 Colorado DOC Performance Plan, Executive Director Rick Raemisch cites four initiatives the department adopted for the year. These include a program that aims to smooth the transition from prison life to life in society by creating special re-entry living units/pods and a program that aims to reduce recidivism by rewarding good behavior while on parole, at the same time increasing contact between parolees and parole officers.  Yet another reformist program aims to expand the number of substance abuse treatment beds for parolees. As a whole, the DOC states its current mission as “[t]o protect the citizens of Colorado by holding offenders accountable and engaging them in opportunities to make positive behavioral changes and becoming law abiding citizens.”[20] Just as in the 1987 article about changes in American society influencing the penal system, recent DOC initiatives reflect the view that a more humanistic relationship between inmates and corrections officers is a priority for rehabilitation and successful reentry of offenders.

The War on Drugs Era, a period marked by exponential growth in the prison population, brought many changes to authorities’ view of corrections in Cañon City. The shock of the rapid population increase forced the DOC and the Cañon City prison system into survival mode, causing the administration and facilities to prioritize efficient organization. As the system began to get a grasp on basic management of the ever-increasing prison population, officials began to reintroduce reform toward reducing recidivism and improving conditions on the ground. Although critics in contemporary public discourse have been harsh in their description of the injustices in the incarceration system, the Department of Corrections and its employees in Cañon City, as their reports demonstrate, maintain as their central purpose the protection of the citizens of Colorado and provision of opportunities for inmates to effectively reenter society.

Michel Foucault’s highly influential study of prisons in the long history of Western society argued that modern criminological theory has held from the late eighteenth century that, in order to reform a man, a “knowledge of each inmate, his behavior, his deeper states of mind, his gradual improvements, must be obtained.”[21] This Foucaultian moral orthopedics is certainly not the direction in which CSP has moved since wardens became superintendents in 1975. After the initial psychological evaluation and classification of entering offenders, almost no efforts are made to know these men throughout their course of imprisonment. In fact, efforts in the reverse are made–to avoid personal interaction with them. This lack of administrative personal knowledge and relationships with the inmates results partly from high numbers and still more from the attitude of professionalism that has now become standard in prisons. “Mechanisms of normalization” as Foucault refers to them, or programs for psychology, medical needs, and education, shift influence over offenders’ lives away from prison leadership.[22] Psychologists, sociologists, and larger government organizations now effectively hold charge over inmates’ lives in the fashion that Roy Best once directly did. Although the wider public and much of modern criminological theory holds the new professional system to be better, the shift has not been without corresponding losses to prisoner well-being.  Prison administration has been distracted from its original duty, to know and understand each inmate and how to best help them. The practices of Roy Best and Harry Tinsley were, in contemporary terms, unprofessional or, in Best’s case, physically inhumane, but those men knew each inmate personally, and their goal was to enable them to stay out of prison once they were released. Only about ten percent of inmates returned under Tinsley’s administration.  The methods used prior to 1976 seem to have been effective, while today incarceration and recidivism rates alike are perilously high.

The call for prison reform and administrative professionalism in the prisons associated with the Civil Rights Movement brought a response perhaps more destructive than helpful to America’s penal system. While some resulting changes improved living conditions, their negative impacts may have undercut the greater goal of the system—to send men out of prison to never return. But the rate of incarceration itself is the greatest obstacle to the knowledge of the prisoner Foucault—or Harry Tinsley—found fundamental to rehabilitation. In 2009, the Colorado State Penitentiary confined 23,147 incarcerated men.[23] How, given these numbers, could personal relationships between incarcerated persons and the administration maintain?



[1] Originally researched and drafted by Nora Klein.

[2] State of Colorado, Department of Corrections, Annual Report. . .1985-1986, ed. Walter L. Kautzky, 3.

[3] John Lemons, “DOC Facilities, Staff Reflect Changes in American Society,” Cañon City Daily Record, May 11, 1987.

[4]  Annual Report. . .1985-1986, 3.p## the best conversations come labor istoricallys more vulnerable. r American students, but I’e of the best conversations come

[5] Benny Johnson, interview by Loretta Stevens Bailey, 2012.

[6] “Rehabilitating Horses and Prisoners,” New York Times, August 26, 1987,

[7] “Woman Warden Keeps Reins on Inmates,” Cañon Current, March 7, 2000.

[8] Duane Noriyuke, “‘New Kid on the Block’ Faces Long Term DOC Problems,” Cañon City Daily Record, June 1, 1983.

[9] Annual Report. . .1985-1986, 3.utside circumstancesrticularly, labor istoricallys more vulnerable. r American students, but I’e of the best conversations come

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 3-5.

[13] Ibid., 7.

[14] “639 F. 2d 559 – Ramos v. D Lamm G D,” Open Jurist, accessed November 9, 2015,

[15] John Lemons, “DOC Facilities, Staff Reflect Changes in American Society,” Cañon City Daily Record, May 11, 1987.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ray Broussard, “Legislators Begin Study of Prisons with Visits to State’s Institutions,”  undated fragment, Gazette Telegraph, Royal Gorge Regional Museum (hereafter RGRM), “Colorado Prisons-Reform” folder.

[19] “Prison staffs have become professional,” Pueblo Chieftain, May 27, 1991.

[20] Colorado Department of Corrections, Performance Plan: 2015-2016, ed. Rick Raemisch et al., Colorado Springs, CO, accessed November 8, 2015,

[21] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, Inc., 1977), 216.

[22] Foucault, 306.

[23] Mitchell.