Staff at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex have the option to live in the facility for $200 a month. Each person has a cubicle where they sleep and keep their belongings. (Courtesy of Sean Fernandez)
Colorado prison officials, facing staff shortages, since late 2021 have been recruiting correctional officers out of Puerto Rico, mostly to work at the state prison in Buena Vista.
Puerto Rican staff now account for almost a fifth of all employees at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex. Their presence has helped the Colorado Department of Corrections maintain staffing levels. But many Puerto Rican staffers, in search of higher pay and better benefits, have accepted a prison offer to live in accommodations on facility grounds for $200 a month. This has led to situations that make some feel like “offenders” at times, according to one correctional officer who spoke to Newsline.
The program started in 2021 as correctional facilities across the country struggled with staffing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. CDOC spokesperson Annie Skinner said the department has found most success in Puerto Rico, but has also recruited new staff from 10 other states around the country.
“CDOC human resources staff were made aware that there were numerous people working in corrections in Puerto Rico who were making less money and could potentially be a recruitment opportunity for our department,” Skinner said in an email.
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Skinner said CDOC has hired 62 people out of Puerto Rico, with 83.3% of them sticking with the job after their initial one-year contract. Because housing is increasingly hard to find for an affordable price, CDOC has about 30 staff members living in the Buena Vista facility, an option available to all 289 employees at the site. A majority of the employees living on site are from Puerto Rico. Skinner said CDOC pays Buena Vista employees an additional $1,000 monthly for housing.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
Hilary Glasgow, executive director of Colorado WINS, the union representing all state employees, said the language barrier came up as a concern from both sides when Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico started working at CDOC. Skinner said while CDOC does not itself offer or require English as a second language classes, “a handful of CDOC staff” chose to take one that was already being offered in Chaffee County.
Sean Fernandez, who just turned 19 last week, has been working and living at the Buena Vista prison since April. He accepted a job as a correctional officer after studying security protection in trade school in Puerto Rico, he said in an interview with Newsline. Fernandez said he knew he wanted to relocate somewhere new, as he was previously working at a restaurant where he wasn’t being paid well, so the benefits and pay at CDOC were desirable.
Once he arrived in Buena Vista after CDOC paid for his one-way flight to Denver, Fernandez underwent about a month of training, which he said is much less than typically required of a correctional officer.
While Fernandez said he enjoys his job, living in the facility has proved difficult, as he feels he’s not being treated as an employee who is paying to live there. Each staff person living in the facility sleeps in an office cubicle, and many people bought bed sheets to hang up for some semblance of privacy. Fernandez said his bay has about 15 people sleeping in one area.
It may sound stupid, but it makes me lose sleep knowing that we have someone constantly looking into our rooms, going through our rooms, and if we're not there, then they go through our stuff.
– Sean Fernandez, correctional officer
While he doesn’t mind sleeping in a cubicle among coworkers, Fernandez said he doesn’t feel comfortable in his “so-called home,” because a prison captain comes into the living quarters for regular, unannounced searches. Fernandez said the searches make him lose sleep.
“He’d do shakedowns, which is pretty much just going through our belongings, doing rounds and treating us like we were offenders,” Fernandez said. “At first, it didn’t bother us that much — like maybe he’s just checking on us — but it came to the point where it just became a more frequent thing and it started getting uncomfortable for everyone else, especially the females.”
Fernandez said there have been a few times when he’s woken up to a flashlight shining in his face. The captain also has the ability to turn on all of the lights in the bays where staff are living, which Fernandez said he has done while people are sleeping. Most of his Puerto Rican colleagues have had similar experiences, he said, with many looking for housing elsewhere.
“It got to the point where I was only sleeping two or three hours,” Fernandez said. “It may sound stupid, but it makes me lose sleep knowing that we have someone constantly looking into our rooms, going through our rooms, and if we’re not there, then they go through our stuff.”
He said he feels like there is nobody who can help improve the situation, as he said the warden, Jason Lengerich, authorized the captain to do the searches.
Asked about Fernandez’s account, Skinner said it’s “inaccurate to say they are conducting ‘unannounced searches.’” She said there is a captain assigned to check on staff housing to ensure compliance with health and fire code requirements.
Glasgow said living in Buena Vista as a state employee is hard for anyone because of the high cost of living, but housing staff at the prison concerns her.
“I don’t like that at all,” she said. “It’s just so expensive to live in Buena Vista, but it’s also very weird to live in the place that you’re working.”
But making sure the facility is fully staffed is crucial, because she said it’s not safe for anyone involved — staff, community, or the incarcerated population — to have an understaffed prison.
“If we don’t have enough staff to staff the basic post positions, how are we ensuring that we move these people through the programs that they need to come out of corrections and not go back?” Glasgow said. “We have got to recruit and retain workers who have the experience and the ability to do the job that this level of interaction with people demands.”
The department plans to continue its recruitment efforts in other states and U.S. territories for facilities other than just Buena Vista, Skinner said. CDOC’s facilities in Buena Vista as well Sterling and Limon are the hardest ones for the department to keep fully staffed because of high housing costs.
According to public records obtained by Newsline, CDOC sent staff to Puerto Rico for recruiting as recently as March. The department has spent almost $25,000 on expenses for the trips, including travel, airfare and car rentals, over the last year.
“In this employment climate, we have to open our recruitment up to the largest pool of people possible, including looking outside of the state of Colorado,” Skinner said.
‘The damage has already been done’
Fernandez said he’s seen and experienced discrimination against the Puerto Rican prison staffers and other members of the Latino community. He said he’s seen people complain that the Puerto Rican staff members “need to stop speaking Spanish around English speakers.” He said female Puerto Rican staff are told they are being “way too friendly” with the people who are incarcerated.
“CDOC takes any allegation of discrimination very seriously,” Skinner said. “This is the first we have been made aware of any potential issues regarding discrimination, and our Inspector General will investigate these claims to ensure our staff are safe and supported. The Department has no tolerance for discriminatory behavior, and is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Fernandez said when he originally came to work at the CDOC, he hoped to start his career. Now he intends to look at other work options once his year-long contract at CDOC is up. He said he isn’t sure if he could see the situation improving for him, because “the damage has already been done.”
“I was definitely planning to stay here for maybe a decade, maybe 20 years or something around there,” Fernandez said. “I was willing to make a career out of this, but it seems like I’m kind of being slowed down.”
The three facilities located at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex have a total capacity of just over 1,300 incarcerated people.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify which employees receive a $1,000 housing stipend and to correct a passage related to when searches of staff living quarters occur.
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