Indecent Exposure

They spent months covered in the dust and dirt of a prison renovation. Now, dozens of officers and inmates say the state risked their lives by making them work with asbestos.

"It's the disease we fear the most when we talk about exposure to asbestos," Hayes says.

The kicker is that it takes 20 to 30 years for asbestos-related diseases to emerge. Most of the plaintiffs in the Aspen case will be senior citizens when--if--they ever know for certain that the "needles" inside them are fatal. That's a lot of mornings to wake up wondering if another number gets added to the cancer statistics.

That possibility has been in Armando Gutierrez's mind often since he handed over the crumbling chunk of asbestos at Aspen last year. Aspen has been a big part of Armando Gutierrez's life since 1995. He was in and out of the facility twice while the renovations occurred. Currently back in custody on a parole violation for assault, Gutierrez has a lot of time to think about what might be inside his body, silently assaulting him. He gets chest x-rays every six months and regular breathing tests. Like the other plaintiffs, those tests will be routine for the rest of his life.

"I couldn't even count, I was in and out of it so many times," Gutierrez says in an interview from the state prison facility at Douglas. "[It was] in the sheets, blankets, the food, you're eating it, sleeping it, breathing it. I think it's something to really be concerned about."

Even if Shanker and Feder cannot get a jury to feel much sympathy for inmates like Gutierrez, there are still the prison employees who say they were exposed as well.

Says one former ADOC employee, "I hope it never happens to anybody else. I hope that the state is smart enough to follow their own policies next time."

While the state will question the actual harm the plaintiffs suffered, other people question inmates and ADOC staff working together to sue the state.

In a June 26, 1996, memo, written after the lawsuit was filed, Aspen's new security chief, Captain Randall Hoover, complained about a "very deep rooted 'click' [sic] that is not supportive of the present administration."

"I have concerns about violations of the Code of Ethics and Staff/Inmate relations policy," Hoover wrote. He questioned whether inmates and staff had passed information between each other in order to file the suit. And even while he wrote that administrative action should not be viewed as retaliation against the plaintiffs, Hoover gave one corrections officer a negative performance evaluation for filing the suit, rather than "follow[ing] the chain of command to resolve issues."

If the administration isn't happy with the lawsuit, the inmates and staff aren't thrilled, either.

Another plaintiff, an ADOC employee who fears retaliation if named, says no one--not the inmates, not the employees--wants to be in this situation. But, he says, it wasn't up to them.

"Unfortunately, we share something. We're all on the same ship and, unfortunately, we sink or swim together.

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