This story was updated at 4 p.m. on Friday with reaction from lawmakers and edited for clarity
Gov. Jared Polis wants to re-open a mothballed maximum security prison in Cañon City in case Colorado’s inmate population outgrows its current facilities. At the same time, the governor plans to push criminal justice reforms aimed at moving more parole-eligible inmates back into the community, which he hopes will reduce the inmate population and preclude the need for Cañon City prison beds in the near term.
Polis’s goals were included in a statement accompanying his $971-million budget request for the Department of Corrections, an approximate 9 percent increase over last year’s budget, which he released at 5 p.m. Thursday.
The administration is asking for authorization to open Centennial South Correctional Facility in Cañon City, a $200-million prison that taxpayers just recently paid off. The prison, which was built to hold prisoners in solitary confinement, was shuttered in 2012 when the practice of isolating prisoners for long periods came under criticism.
The statement stipulated Cañon City would only be used if the state’s prison population reached 99 percent capacity for two consecutive months or more. But by the end of his term, in 2022, he wants to turn the prison into an intake center and use Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, or DRDC, as a place to provide long-term care and mental health treatment. Some lawmakers back this plan because they say it’s easier to find qualified medical professionals in Denver than it is in rural Colorado.
A concern is that the state’s prison population has started to increase in the past few years after several years of decline. Projections show the total prison population could swell from the current 20,200 to 25,000 by 2022, far exceeding current bed counts. Currently, there are fewer than 100 state prison beds left in the entire 14,505-bed system, not including beds in private prisons and community corrections.
Some argue the lack of capacity already is creating dangerous conditions for correctional officers who are working overtime due to staff vacancies. It is also one of the reasons the Department of Corrections says it is having difficulty providing inmates treatment, which is, in part, conditioned on bed space in certain prisons.
The lack of treatment has prompted lawsuits and prevents inmates from being released on parole. Currently, about 8,600 inmates, or nearly half the total prison population, are past their parole eligibility date.
To address concerns of overcrowding in the near future, Polis’s budget endorses several policy ideas lawmakers have floated to reduce the numbers.
For example, his budget seeks a law change that would automatically release certain people with low-level convictions to parole upon their parole eligibility date unless the state Board of Parole objects. This process is known as the presumption of parole.
It would also ease punishments for people who breach conditions of their parole, such as missing an appointment, violating curfew or failing a drug test. Currently, about half the people who go on parole end up back in prison for committing new crimes or a technical violation, according to the Department of Corrections.
Additionally, the budget request adds money for parole caseworkers and reentry services, including one modeled after a 2014 program designed to help former inmates find work. There is also a $1 million placeholder for a program to help cover the costs of housing for former inmates. These measures are designed to reduce the state’s above-average recidivism rate of about 50 percent.
The governor’s budget request still needs approval from lawmakers. So, too, does his plan to open Cañon City.
Republicans are generally supportive of moving inmates into Cañon City, having already voted last year in the Senate to do so. But some Republicans have raised concerns about cost, arguing it will require tens of millions of dollars to staff the prison. Democratic lawmakers who focus on criminal justice reforms were generally supportive of the administration’s plan. Using Centennial South as a backstop, they said, won’t necessarily reduce the urgency of passing top-priority criminal justice reform measures.
Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver, said she wants to see reforms passed before lawmakers authorize the prison. If lawmakers vote to open the prison, she said, they should require that it be used in “very limited circumstances.” She said this could include allowing it to be used only in emergency situations or as a way to treat more inmates with drug addiction and mental health needs, as the administration’s budget outlines.
Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he is supportive of the “tone, the tenor and the direction” of the governor’s plan. He acknowledges, however, that re-opening Centennial South, a prison built amid a swelling incarceration rate and one designed for solitary confinement, has an outsized symbolic meaning.
“A lot of us didn’t want to see it built and the fact it was closed seemed important,” Lee said. “So to re-open it takes a leap of faith.”