Why Gitmo detainees won’t save a dud Colorado supermax

It's unlikely the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay will be transferred to this Colorado prison.

The plan to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has triggered a flurry of election-year fear mongering about the possibility of federal detainees being transferred to Colorado. But, in all the not-in-my-backyard press releases and talk-radio chatter this week, politicos are overlooking a key fact: The feds have shown no interest in one of the two sites they were eying here.

That site is Centennial Correctional Facility South, formerly known as Colorado State Penitentiary II. If neither name rings a bell, you may remember the Cañon City prison as one of Colorado’s most hulking white elephants. The $208 million state supermax was partially opened in 2010 and then shut down 18 months later because the Corrections Department didn’t have the money to staff it.

Centennial South has sat vacant since 2012 as state officials have hoped to lease or sell it to a private prison company or the federal government. But, as prison real estate goes, this particular big house has been especially tough to unload.

That’s partly because the supermax lacks a chow hall, outdoor recreation space, day halls, classrooms and other facilities that a typical prison would need. Its 948 single-bed cells have become outdated in an era when Colorado’s and other states’ corrections departments – and, more recently, even the federal Bureau of Prisons — are trying to cut their use of long-term solitary confinement.

Cost also has kept the state from selling or leasing Centennial South. The legislature circumvented the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights by funding the prison with certificates of participation, a financing tool that lets the state lease the building for the term of the debt. A buyer would have to pay far higher interest rates than the state.

“What we’re seeing now is some chickens coming home to roost,” Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition’s Christie Donner, the prison’s chief critic, told this reporter for a Denver Post column in 2009 when it had become clear the supermax was obsolete before it had even opened.

Embarrassed by its $208 million, brand new, but empty prison, the state changed the name from Colorado State Penitentiary II to Centennial Correctional Facility South in hopes of avoiding attention to the taxpayer-funded snafu.

Officials had a glint of hope in finding a use for the facility this past fall when the Obama administration came scouting for sites to relocate detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The mothballed supermax made the shortlist for its ability to house detainees in isolation, as some — but not all – captives have been housed on the notorious naval base in Cuba.

The Defense Department’s scouting team also toured another site in Colorado — the medium security Federal Correctional Institute at Florence, which is 10 miles from Centennial South. That prison can house 1,517 inmates. Both it and Centennial South are far bigger than would be needed to incarcerate the 30 to 60 detainees who would be transferred to U.S. soil if Obama’s plan to shutter Gitmo moves forward.

The administration also has looked at military facilities such as the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as possible sites to house detainees. Just as Colorado politicians are decrying any possible transfers to the Centennial State, officials in those states are voicing loud objections.

Little is known about the details of the DOD’s inspection of the two Colorado sites. State and federal officials have been mum since the tour last fall.

When pressed about the extent of the feds’ interest Monday, the Corrections Department said the upshot was there was no upshot. Washington never called back for a second look.

“The direction I’ve been told to take is that we’ve not had any further contact with the federal government on this issue,” corrections spokeswoman Laurie Kilpatrick told The Independent late Monday.

A more certain sign that Centennial South won’t become Gitmo North can be found in a 57-page report by the Office of State Planning and Budgeting. According to the final draft of the “Colorado Prison Utilization Study Update,” which was released earlier this month, “Efforts to lease or sell the facility to another jurisdiction have proven fruitless.”

To make use of the mothballed prison, the report suggests “re-purposing” it in two ways. One would be as an intake facility for new state prisoners, a function that would require 442 beds. The other would be as a re-entry facility for prisoners who are about to be freed, which would use 506 beds. Together, both programs would occupy all 948 of Centennial South’s single-bed cells and, as the report’s authors seem to imply, circumvent the requirement that prisoners be offered time and space with other prisoners.

“Both of these groups of offenders are in transitional, short-term stages in their incarceration that do not necessitate the full range of programs and recreational opportunities provided to general population inmates,” reads the report. “This approach aligns the use of CCF South with the inmate population groups and programs that can make the most effective use of the facility in its current configuration.”

The plan is projected to cost $2.8 million to renovate Centennial South alone, plus about $6.4 million in capitol costs to re-purpose two other prisons as a result of the proposed programming changes. It would cost another $18 million in ongoing staff and operational costs.

It’s still in question whether Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration and the budget-makers in the legislature will approve the repurposing plan.

Though Centennial South opened under Gov. Bill Ritter and then shut down in Hickenlooper’s second year in office, both inherited the white elephant from Gov. Bill Owens. Post-Columbine and post 9/11, the prison grew out of heavy tough-on-crime sentiment from the 2003 legislature when state officials were set on building a second state supermax – in addition to the all-solitary Colorado State Penitentiary – to isolate the most dangerous prisoners.

Owens convinced lawmakers to move ahead with the prison project despite admonitions from the state treasurer and a requirement for a vote of the people to increase state debt. Owens also ignored a Corrections Department report in 2005 showing that Colorado was keeping three times as many prisoners in solitary confinement as most states.

“Can you say ‘BOONDOGGLE’?” asked Sen. Pat Steadman, a member of the budget committee who long has complained about the $18 million to $20 million Coloradans have been paying each year in debt on the mothballed prison.

Unlike most public officials, Steadman – who’s term limited — had publicly supported the prospect of re-using the prison for Guantanamo detainees, noting that the Cañon City/Florence area has “plenty of bad guys” and terrorists locked up in highly secure prisons that pose no threat to public safety.

Now that the Gitmo North idea seems to be off the table for Centennial South, Steadman says he’ll take a hard look at the plan to reuse the supermax for state prisoners heading into and out of the DOC system.

“We need to find a use for the place,” he said. “Paying $20 million a year for a building that’s sitting useless is really not acceptable.”


Photo credit: Kyle Adams, Creative Commons, Flickr