Polis punts decision to open shuttered prison, seeks ‘holistic’ solution to dwindling bed space

Governor leans toward 'reform that will avoid unnecessary incarceration' as prisons reach 99 percent capacity

Democratic governor-elect Jared Polis speaks at his midterm election night party in Denver, Colorado. Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Colorado’s prisons are 99 percent full, and the inmate population is projected to rise. But Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who has made criminal justice reform one of his priorities as the state’s new governor, has so far held off on opening another prison.

Unlike his predecessor, John Hickenlooper, Polis is not yet sold on adding more prison beds to the state’s correctional system.

“We seek holistic reform that will avoid unnecessary incarceration, safely reduce the critical capacity issues facing our prison system, provide opportunities to minimize the use of private prisons, and better prepare individuals for life beyond bars,” Polis wrote in a letter accompanying the $33.7 billion state budget released on Tuesday.

Notably, there was no budget for the Department of Corrections, which oversees the state’s prison system.

The administration has not decided whether it wants to open Centennial South Correctional Facility, a shuttered prison in Cañon City. It is taking more time to finalize the Department of Corrections’ budget while it considers ways to manage the state’s limited prison capacity and achieve reforms, according to the state budget director.

In 2010, when Hickenlooper was elected, there was talk in the state legislature about closing a state prison. That year kicked off what would become a steady decline in the number of inmates in Colorado. But that trend is now beginning to shift. And ten years later, the situation is almost the opposite.

The prison population has reached 20,200, a three-year high. There are fewer than 100 open state prison beds, not including community corrections beds or private prison beds, according to an analysis of state data. Meanwhile, state estimates show the prison population could swell to 25,000 by 2022, far exceeding current bed counts. That’s in part because felony case filings in district courts are on the rise. Drug possession and dealing cases make up the largest share of those filings.  

To ease the prospect of prison overcrowding, the Hickenlooper administration repeatedly sought money and authorization to re-open Centennial South, formerly known as Colorado State Penitentiary II, or CSPI II, a high-security prison built in Cañon City in 2010 to house solitary-confinement prisoners. The prison closed two years later after the state decided to discontinue long-term isolation as a form of punishment, and it has sat empty ever since.

Taxpayers have just finished paying off the $200 million prison, according to state budget documents. Opening the prison could free up about 600 beds. Some lawmakers want to turn the prison into an intake center and use Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, or DRDC, as a place to treat people with behavioral, mental health and substance use disorder needs. 

The Hickenlooper administration requested about $28 million from lawmakers to retool and staff the prison. Construction is underway so that inmates can be held in normal conditions rather than solitary confinement. This construction includes building an outdoor recreation yard. 

In September last year, the Joint Budget Committee approved an approximate $1 million request to make upgrades to the prison. An official with the Department of Corrections told the committee last week the state could begin bringing inmates into Centennial South as soon as late March. Authorization from lawmakers is needed before inmates can be moved in. 

But the director designate for the Department of Corrections, Dean Williams, who oversaw Alaska’s prison system, shared some different ideas with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. He did not mention Centennial South when lawmakers asked about his solutions for prison overcrowding. 

Dean Williams, the designated director for the Department of Corrections, at the state Capitol on Jan. 16, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

When asked by a lawmaker about expanding treatment to people with mental health needs — who account for about 40 percent of the prison population, the majority of whom are not currently completing treatment programs while incarcerated — Williams said he wants to see more community partners in the state’s prisons.

“Because I think some of those issues can be solved more readily with community partners who want to be there in the first place,” he told the committee.

He also said he wants to study the issues facing the state Board of Parole and why nearly half the prison population is past their parole eligibility date. He said bringing in more community partners, such as nonprofits that help inmates with housing and job skills, before their parole board hearings could help.

He said the parole board plays a role in managing the size of the prison population and that “part of my responsibility is to engage heavily in that system because it affects so much what is happening in the correctional system and the prison system.” 

Williams, who recently arrived to Colorado, said he wants to spend time listening to people involved in the criminal justice system.

“I don’t take this job or this appointment lightly,” he told the committee. “If you don’t enter this work with a little bit of fear and trepidation I think you’re being foolish.” 

The committee gave him a unanimous nod of approval ahead of a Senate confirmation vote. 

The administration plans to release the Department of Corrections budget by Jan. 31.


  1. great, get ready for more crime, no consequence for actions and criminal entitlement…wait, never mind that’s been the agenda for the last 8 years

  2. our Parole Board here in Colorado springs (El Paso County) such as Denise Balazic is terrible- she doesn’t care whatsoever about the progress one has made while incarcerated-completing classes, fully compliant, 0 zero writeups- points down to a 4- approved for ISPI by parole – which has not yet taken off in Colorado Springs, now 5months late since Mr. Ramesch signed it into effect in sept of 18-and still not used in El Paso county – wasting 272 comm corr beds -tax $$ still paid for- Our DOC here in Colorado is in trouble – low risk offenders kept to there MRD date- prisons overflowing and should be saved for real offenders not those that had a tech violation parole revoked and also charged with a new crime of escape given 2 more yrs by the DA-for the same tech issue parole was revoked for-this is what is keeping our prisons over capacity and innocent people behind bars- so unfair they are serving multiple sent for the same tech issue-we need prison reform terribly bad and Parole Board reform as well-they don’t care about letting people out on there PED making them stay another yr to the MRD so unfair and unsafe and unjust-lets get the low risk offenders out – especially when they have been charged in double jeopardy by our courts and da and bad parole officers that should of revoked parole-and not went after a new charge for the same technical issues of not calling cwise and past curfew violation less then 10hrs due to power loss while on isp-so unfair- we need a prison sentence revamp fast and for it to be across the board where this not allowed to happen. Colorado is the worst on redacizum due to this big problem of keeping low risk offenders behind bars for yrs becaue the parole board especially Denise Balazic whom doesn’t care on bit about her job, the progress an offender makes., the need for comm corr, and keeps them incarrserated for no reason whatsoever as they are just a $$$ sign to get the private prison there 53.00 a day – which is costing tax payers un needed expense- and unfare- lets close the private prison esp CMRC in Colorado Springs whom is taking inmates with 10+ yrs and has there PO’s walking around laughing & Joking about someone being raped and getting 27 stitches- CMRC is a ses pool of wrong doing -with a cafeteria worker (Smith) getting caught bringing meth into the prison- close CMRC and force DOC to do a better job starting with the Parole Board and Denise Balazic getting paid 90,000 yr to do an injustice to our prisoners and Kirsten hilkey who lets it happen- so terrible I have been fighting a loosing battle for a yr and no body will listen to this injustice so hi hopes for our new DOC chief and Mr. Polis who need to make a change asap to stop this injustice of keeping them in prison just as $$$ signs- stop the funding and force DOC to do a much better job instead of sweeping it under the rug- Colorado DOC is in horrible shape and needs change fast please please please please- call for more information I have proof of the injustice being done in our county and it is sickening- and horrible for a state agency to be so unjust and incorrect-

  3. I agree, Colorado needs to shape up. They lead people to believe they are giving programs for reintegration. They are NOT! The private and state prisons need to DO what their websites claim they are doing. I believe they keep people longer than necessary, just to make a buck. I am a normal average citizen, who has a loved one in a Colorado prison. He is not violent, although they have labeled him that because of his offense. I can’t say he does not deserve to pay for his past mistake- however he is a prime example of someone who could be released and not feared by anyone. What is wrong here? I am leaving a name below that is not me, because I believe they make it harder for those who are inside. I have been communicating with the inside now for years, and I truly believe it is a corrupt, unjust system. It was obvious from day one in the court room, that something wasn’t right. I thought justice would prevail. I was wrong. I am utterly shocked that I believed in the system. Now I feel sorry for anyone entangled in it.

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