Whistleblower Suit on Illegal Waste Dumping at Colorado State Prisons

Electronic waste illegally dumped at Colorado State Prisons

A former warden of a Colorado state prison has filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging he was transferred because he had complained about illegal dumping of electronic waste at state prisons improperly authorized by the head of the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC). Angel Medina, formerly a warden at the East Cañon Complex in Cañon City, filed the lawsuit on October 2.

The lawsuit claims DOC executive director Rick Raemisch authorized the dumping as a favor for a businessman in the county from which the waste came because he had been given access to the businessman’s land and cabins for hunting trips.  (Hunting has been a source of trouble before for the DOC chief; earlier this year he was reprimanded for using a state vehicle for an elk hunting excursion.) The businessman also had an interest in Colorado Correctional Industries, which sponsors work projects for state inmates.

While working last December at his former location, Medina learned that tractor trailers carrying such electronic waste as old TV sets and computer monitors were seeking admission to the prison complex. Under Colorado state law, such waste is banned from being put into public waste dumps, because of its high lead levels.

Inquiries through official channels brought word that DOC’s chief had authorized the vehicles to enter, so they were admitted. But Medina directed his staff to make further inquiries, and in April the state’s environmental agency informed Colorado Correctional Industries that the electronic waste was not lawfully on the prison sites, which had not registered or even applied for the required permits to operate as waste recycling centers.

The prison industries firm reportedly claimed the waste had been shipped as part of a pilot program involving that firm and a county and town which hoped to reduce illegal dumping of waste. However, their planned solution amounted to precisely that: offering, due to the involvement of inmate labor, a perhaps lower-priced but still illegal storage and dumping of electronic waste.

Eventually, the waste was removed, taken to registered recycling centers in Colorado Springs and Denver. Medina’s lawyer estimates the state incurred about $100,000 in costs removing the improperly accepted waste from at least two prison sites.

Medina’s lawsuit also complains that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation has completed a report on its investigation of his complaints of having been punished for his opposition to storing the waste shipments on prison land, but he has been unable to obtain a copy, despite state open government laws.

The lawsuit, which names as defendants Gov. John Hickenlooper, his chief counsel, and the head of Colorado Bureau of Investigation, also alleges at least two other workers had been penalized for their outspokenness on the issue.

Depending on the lawsuit’s outcome, it could become a major setback both for DOC chief Raemisch – who has been a high-profile opponent of solitary confinement – and for Gov. Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper is considered to have presidential ambitions (some political observers saw it as more than a coincidence his major vacation trips this summer were to Iowa and New Hampshire, states which play a prominent role in the early stages of most presidential nomination campaigns).

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.