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Colorado prisoners written up hundreds of times for refusing to work

Advocates said the practice mirrors slavery and violates the state constitution, while the Department of Corrections said the policy incentivizes good behavior.

DENVER — A lawsuit filed against the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) is aiming to end forced prison labor, saying that it's a form of slavery and should have been outlawed with the passing of an amendment in 2018.

Coloradans voted to remove the slavery exception from the Colorado Constitution with the passage of Amendment A in 2018. It meant slavery and involuntary servitude could no longer be used as possible punishments for crimes in the state. 

All “eligible offenders” are required to work while in prison, according to CDOC procedures obtained through a records request.

“Offenders are informed of the potential consequences of refusing to work or attend assigned programs, including, but not limited to: restricted privileges, loss of other privileges, delayed parole hearing date, and not being eligible for earned time," according to the document.

Lawyers representing incarcerated people sued Gov. Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Corrections and Dean Williams, formerly the CDOC executive director in February 2022 for allegedly violating the Colorado constitution. 

“In the years after the passage of Amendment A, the State has continued to require and compel incarcerated individuals to work under conditions amounting to involuntary servitude and under threats of punishments that include being cut off from contact with family and being socially isolated under conditions that approximate solitary confinement,” Valerie Collins, a lawyer representing those suing the state, wrote in the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, inmates were also threatened with reduced “earned time” -- an incentive where inmates are eligible for parole sooner.

Attorneys for the Colorado Attorney General wrote in a response that removing incentives is not the same as forced labor.

“By awarding privileges to inmates who comply with programming (including work requirements), and denying privileges to inmates who refuse to work, CDOC is incentivizing work and programming compliance consistent with the will of the voters,” Ann Stanton, an attorney representing the state, wrote.

9Wants to Know found at least 727 instances where the CDOC wrote up inmates for failing to report to work or to do the assigned work. The data did not show what the most common punishment was.

Dave Maxted, an attorney representing two incarcerated people suing CDOC, said the data showed the scale at which the agency tried to force people into labor.

“There are a huge number of people suffering sanctions for choosing not to work,” he said.

Created by Zack Newman.

There were at least 154 failure to work notations in 2022, which is down from a high of 207 incidents in 2019. 

Incidents of inmates failing to work happened at 20 facilities across the state but were concentrated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, where at least 245 incidents occurred.

Taj Ashaheed, a Colorado prison reentry advocate and former inmate, said prison labor in the state perpetuates slavery.

“We pay very little money for a lot of labor,” he said. “And I think that that was certainly the intent of slavery was to get labor without paying for it. And I think that that's what continues.”

Ashaheed said he worked as a tutor, in a warehouse and on a goat dairy farm during his 10 years in Colorado prisons. He said people will stop working out of protest, boredom or a job that gives more meaning than helping the prison cut costs.

“Even the people who refuse to work, I don't consider that they're lazy,” Ashaheed said. “I think that their refusal was a protest. So it's a matter of fulfillment. Absolutely. And that's, I mean, that is no different than in the free world. We want to find that job that not just that doesn't just pay us but gives us meaning and is meaningful.”

Annie Skinner, spokesperson for the CDOC, wrote in an email that she could not comment on the litigation and that the court allegedly dismissed portions of the lawsuit. 

“I cannot comment on the lawsuit given that it is an ongoing case, however, the court has already dismissed the plaintiffs’ facial constitutional claims, holding that ‘the challenged statutes and administrative regulations themselves do not force incarcerated persons to participate in involuntary servitude,’” she wrote.

A district court judge ruled in October 2022 that threatening isolation or physical punishment for not working may be considered unconstitutional, but that taking away privileges or earned good time may be allowed. David Seligman and Maxted, attorneys suing the state, said the partial dismissal is a legal victory and that they plan to appeal that ruling.

Read about our data analysis process here.

Jeremy Jojola contributed to this report.

Reach investigative reporter Zack Newman at 303-548-9044. You can also call or text securely on Signal through that same number. Email: zack.newman@9news.com. Call or text is preferred over email.

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