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.
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.