Law Students Beat Colorado ‘Supermax’ on Prisoner Recreation

Law Students Beat Colorado ‘Supermax’ on Prisoner Recreation

Colorado State Penitentiary opened in Canon City in 1993, was one of the first state prisons built to be a top-security “supermax” facility – where the most violent or troublesome inmates in the state system would be kept in lockdown all but one hour per day.

Other than for legal or medical appointments, during that single daily hour inmates are escorted from their 80-square-foot cells for showers, haircuts, or exercise. But since the Level V facility opened, exercise has been limited to indoor rooms that, at 90 square feet, are only slightly bigger than a single cell. Exercise equipment consists of a single pull-up bar. And there’s no direct sunlight, just whatever light can squeeze in through a few small window panels.

That’s about to change, however, as the state Department of Corrections (DOC) in recent months has agreed to an outlay of over $4.7 million to bring outdoor exercise and recreation areas to the penitentiary. Although the battle lasted almost five years, the DOC eventually gave in, after its tough-as-nails facility was unable to defeat (wait for it) – a group of law students.

The extremely limited exercise facilities were first challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by an inmate imprisoned at CSP for killing four former co-workers at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant where he had been fired from a cook’s job. To resolve that case, in 2011 the state moved him to another prison with better facilities. (Moving inmates rather than fixing problems has been a recurring response by the Colorado DOC).

The same year, a consultant’s study on CSP’s recreation facilities, which had been ordered by the agency’s then-director, concluded the absence of outdoor exercise opportunities was unique to CSP among U.S. prisons and ran counter to established standards for correctional institutions. Even the federal ADX “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo. ­ home to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid ­– allows outdoor exercise, although limited to caged-in areas.

In 2012, a Denver-based non-profit and students participating in the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Denver’s Sturm School of Law brought a new lawsuit for Troy Anderson, a mentally ill CSP inmate over, among other things, the inadequate exercise facilities. In August, a federal judge found Anderson’s solitary confinement and the lack of outdoor exercise combined to create what he called a “paradigm of inhumane treatment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment and gave the agency 60 days to come up with a remedial plan. The DOC responded by moving Anderson out of CSP to a different facility; the same judge found those facilities also lacked adequate exercise facilities.

After fruitless negotiation with the agency, the law students and the non-profit sued again in December 2013, representing three CSP inmates. This time, they won court permission to bring a class-action lawsuit for all CSP inmates affected by the lack of adequate exercise facilities. Eventually, later last year, the state agreed to build new exercise facilities not just at CSP, but also at the other state prison where a judge had found them inadequate.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at, and