Senators push to reopen state prison in final week of the session, bucking correctional reform efforts in the House

Photo by Amanda Slater, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo by Amanda Slater, Creative Commons, Flickr

Update: The House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 along party lines to kill the bill on Tuesday. 

A last-ditch effort to open a controversial high-security prison cleared its first hurdle last week with bipartisan support.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 5-2 to approve spending about $11.3 million to open up Colorado State Penitentiary II, now called the Centennial South Correctional Facility, a Cañon City prison that was built in 2010 to hold inmates in solitary confinement but was later mothballed in 2012. The money would pay mostly for building an outdoor recreational facility so that it could legally house general-population inmates. Each following year, additional operating costs are estimated to be about $18.8 million, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

The momentum came to an end Tuesday when the House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 along party lines to kill the bill. Several of the committee members wanted to prevent the prison from opening so that the Department of Corrections would be pressured to transition inmates into community corrections and parole.

The proposed spending comes as the state’s prison population is expected to rise above 20,000 inmates as soon as next year, according to state economists, in part due to a “rapidly rising felony caseload.”

“I would characterize it as giving us a lot more flexibility and reducing the rush of overcrowding,” Sen. Kent Lambert, a Republican from Colorado Springs who is the only sponsor on the bill, told The Colorado Independent.

The bill would have made Centennial South Correctional Facility, which has 948 high-security single-bed cells, into an intake facility for new inmates. The current intake facility, the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, would be used for inmates who have physical, cognitive, and medical conditions that require long-term treatment.

That change would allow the Department of Corrections to take advantage of the greater number of medical professionals who live in the Denver metro area, said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, who voted for the bill. In rural Colorado, he said, it’s hard to find workers to treat these inmates.

“By getting offenders the treatment they need, we would minimize their time within the Department of Corrections,” Moreno told The Colorado Independent.

The bill would have taken pressure off the DOC to transition more inmates out of prison and into halfway houses and parole. And, given that, the bill always had little chance of passing the House Judiciary Committee. The committee is stacked with Democrats and a Republican who have voted to withhold money from the department precisely so that it would have to find ways to get more inmates out of the prison system — a key part of their correctional reform efforts this session.

The state borrowed $208 million get the Centennial South Correctional Facility built — a construction bill taxpayers are still paying off to investors at a current rate of about $20 million per year. 

The state budget, which was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday, includes a placeholder for $11 million that House lawmakers wanted to use as a backup plan if the Department of Corrections had issues transitioning inmates out of prisons. Not in the budget, however, is a Department of Corrections request for money to lease the Huerfano County Correctional Facility, a private prison that closed in 2010. 

Photo: Amanda Slater, Creative Commons, Flickr