Amid flurry of criminal justice reforms, lawmakers seek to reopen prison

Sen. Leroy Garcia plans to introduce bill that would partially open Centennial South in Cañon City

Centennial South in Cañon City on June 21, 2010. (Photo courtesy the Department of Corrections)

Update: The bill, SB-259, was introduced April 19. We updated the story with some specifics in the bill. 

Colorado lawmakers this session are moving ahead with far-reaching criminal justice reforms aimed at curbing the state’s swelling prison population, reducing recidivism, and saving money. But that’s not stopping them from reopening a high-security prison in Cañon City.

Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, introduced a bill Friday that authorizes the limited use of Centennial South if the state’s male prisons reach 99% capacity for two consecutive months. This threshold has been reached or exceeded 10 ten months out of the last year.

This kind of “emergency,” as he put it, would allow the state to begin shuttling inmates into a prison that was built to hold prisoners in solitary confinement, which means there are fewer common areas, smaller cells and no dining hall.  

In the past, Democrats balked at the idea of allowing the state to increase prison capacity. Earlier in the session, they raised concerns that opening the prison could quash the incentive to carry out proposed reforms aimed at reducing the prison population, such as paroling more inmates.

Due to these concerns, lawmakers plan to limit the number of beds available at the high-security prison to 126 and authorize its use for only two years. The Department of Corrections must receive permission from lawmakers to reopen the approximate 600-bed prison. 

The prison, formerly known as Colorado State Penitentiary II, or CSP II, was built during a prison population boom but closed two years later in 2012 after the state sought to reduce the use of long-term isolation as a form of punishment.

Some lawmakers still worry that putting inmates in the supermax prison could be inhumane, even though officials with the Department of Corrections say they will not necessarily hold the inmates in solitary confinement. Dean Williams, executive director for the Department of Corrections, said he would even consider leaving cell doors open.  

Rep. Leslie Herod, a reform advocate who earlier this session successfully blocked state funding for Centennial South upgrades, said, “I will be going down to CSP II to check out the facility.”

The Denver Democrat now supports reopening the prison under limited circumstances while the reforms take effect.

Last session, amid similar warnings of prison overcrowding, Democrats fought efforts by former Gov. John Hickenlooper to open the $200-million facility that is sitting practically empty. But lawmakers this year are warming up to the idea of opening the prison, in large part, they say, because Gov. Jared Polis is on board with a number of criminal justice reforms.

He is also pledging that no new beds will be added to the prison system by the end of his first term. Supporters of this plan point out it costs the state $40,000 annually to house a prisoner — another reason to focus on reforms rather than incarceration. If Centennial South is opened, Polis plans to move inmates out of the state’s three private prisons and into state-run beds, which would offset any increase in bed counts.

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Some lawmakers say they hope the criminal justice reforms may reduce the prison population enough to avoid even needing to open Centennial South.

One bill changes the parole system and could lead to the release more inmates from prison and prevent fewer from returning for technical violations of parole. About 8,600 people are parole-eligible but remain in prison, in part because they are not receiving help finding housing or substance-abuse-disorder treatment in advance of their release.

Another bill would lower certain felony charges for drug possession to misdemeanors. About 118 people are serving time in prison for simple drug possession as their most serious charge, according to the Department of Corrections.

Democrats are also working to pass a bill that would help people who have served their time to seal certain criminal records. Other bipartisan bills would bar employers, college admissions offices and landlords from asking about a person’s criminal history. These criminal records create barriers to finding housing and employment, which can drive up the odds of committing new crimes and landing in prison. Colorado’s recidivism rate is 50%, which is above the national average.  

Authorizing the use of Centennial South won’t take the pressure off of passing or implementing these reforms, Herod said. And until the reforms take effect, she said, the state has to prepare for the potential that prisons will fill up.

“We are in a position where we’re at capacity. And that’s just the reality,” she said. 

The nonpartisan Legislative Council projects that under existing law, the state’s current total prison population will swell to 20,432 in June —  up from the current 20,140 — and continue climbing, which would max out or exceed the number of beds available in the state’s prisons this summer.

The number of criminal case filings in District Court has more than doubled since 2012 and continues to grow. Drug charges make up the largest share of these case filings and have been a key driver of the prison population.

With permission from legislators, the Department of Corrections last year began spending $1.1 million on upgrades to Centennial South, including the construction of recreation yards, cable and electric infrastructure upgrades, furnishings, and cell modifications, according to budget documents.

Garcia is not worried about the conditions in the prison. He said the facility can be adapted so inmates are held in lower-security conditions and cited the example of Fort Lyon. That facility was once a hospital for veterans, then a prison, and then a rehabilitation center for people with substance use disorder and mental health issues.

Lawmakers said the bill would set up a summer study committee to monitor the prison population and require the Department of Corrections to tell lawmakers about steps taken to release parole-eligible inmates before it can move inmates into the facility.  

Said Garcia, “This is something we want to watch very closely.”

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  1. First..If an agency say’s it’s “Nonpartisan” beware ain’t no free lunch Like “Non profit” ever see what the homeless “Advocates” in Denver pay themselve’s? I.C. E. gonna’ need the space..Open the sucka” up!

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