Colorado prison inmates now ordering from Amazon, Walmart -- "Sounds like a five-star hotel," says prosecutor
Some Colorado prison inmates doing life sentences for murders and other heinous crimes are now being allowed to order gourmet food, name brand clothing and other luxury items from Amazon and Walmart in an arrangement one former prosecutor calls "outrageous," but that the Colorado Department of Corrections says is contributing to a safer prison environment and lower recidivism rates.
Annie Skinner, a public information officer for the Colorado Department of Corrections would not consent to an on-camera interview and would not allow CBS News Colorado cameras into the "Honor House" at La Vista Correctional facility for women in Pueblo, but in an emailed statement, Skinner said, "The old school way of operating prisons was to make them harsh and punishing environments, but what corrections officials across the world have grown to understand is that the best way to reduce recidivism is to provide opportunities for incarcerated individuals to make positive changes while they are incarcerated, to work towards achieving additional privileges ... and to support them in preparing to transition from prison back into a home environment."
The Honor House at La Vista has been in existence since August 2021. It houses about 30 inmates, with a goal of "successful reintegration into society" by providing privileges and responsibilities and an environment similar to what inmates will encounter when they are released. The women have to qualify for entry into the program by exhibiting good prison behavior and achieving numerous other standards. Once in, they can come and go from their cells virtually at will, have their own cooking and laundry facilities, have their own newly stocked exercise room with top-shelf equipment, are surrounded by more comfortable furniture and can order from Amazon and Walmart twice per month, as long the money comes from the inmates or their families. Prison staff members travel to a Pueblo Walmart to pick up the inmate's food orders.
A review of the Honor House roster showed that about one quarter of the inmates are actually either doing life sentences or will be imprisoned for many more years and won't be transitioning back into society soon, or ever.
"We do have some women who live in the unit who have long-term or life sentences," said Skinner. "These women will be participating in the unit as part of a mentorship program, and will be able to give back by assisting other women in preparing for return to the community. It is also important to provide purpose behind the walls for individuals who have long sentences because that keeps our facilities safer for staff and inmates."
But Mitch Morrissey, who served three terms as Denver's District Attorney from 2005-2017, said putting murderers and sexual abusers in an "honor unit" and allowing them to order from Walmart and Amazon was "outrageous."
"These are people the victims think belong behind bars for the rest of their lives. This doesn't sound like they're behind bars to me," said Morrissey. "It sounds like a five-star hotel."
Morrissey was surprised to learn that a woman his office prosecuted and got convicted for sexual assault on a child was living in the Honor House as part of her 20 year to life sentence. Linda Torrez pleaded guilty in 2010 for her part in the sexual abuse of two young children she was supposed to be caring for.
"She's not somebody who should be sitting in the equivalent of a five-star hotel," said Morrissey.
He said Torrez participated and enabled the abuse of the two siblings over the course of nearly a decade.
"I just don't understand how somebody like that would be in an honor group. This woman is serving out her sentence in luxury. I just don't see how she deserves that or how she should be in that kind of setting. I believe there's a certain degree of punishment that should go with the behavior that she was involved in and it certainly doesn't sound like punishment to me."
Morrissey seemed stunned that Torrez and other long-term inmates were being allowed to order everything from Cocoa Puffs to Chai tea to Victoria Secret lotions and that prison staff members were making the twice-per-month delivery runs to Walmart.
"Taxpayer paid guards are going out and doing that as part of their jobs as basically to be errand boys for these women. I think that's outrageous," said Morrissey.
Christie Donner, with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said having "lifers" like Torrez in an Honor House "can be extremely stabilizing and almost mentoring."
She said inmates doing life sentences are like "elders. They can provide a lot of guidance."
Overall, Donner said the La Vista Honor House is an example of how American prisons are changing, with incentives mattering far more than negative consequences.
"Their punishment is going to prison. It doesn't have to be brutal in that experience," said Donner. "If you actually care about public safety, this is what it looks like sometimes."
She said she understands the anger toward some inmates.
"You're pissed. They hurt people. They should be punished. Every day should be a struggle. I get this, but it's not how you operate safe institutions," said Donner.
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