Inside Centennial South, the maximum security prison Colorado could soon reopen

The Independent tagged along as the state's DOC chief toured the shuttered prison for the first time

(Photo by John Herrick)

If you’ve driven U.S. 50 between Colorado Springs and Cañon City, you may have seen this building.

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

It’s called Centennial South, but was formerly known as CSPII — as in Colorado State Penitentiary II; the first is just up the road on the same prison campus off U.S. 50.

Centennial South opened in 2010 amid a boom in the state prison population. It cost $208 million to open, and it has capacity for 948 prisoners. The prison was built for solitary confinement, and it closed just two years after opening, as the state Department of Corrections (DOC) phased out prolonged solitary confinement. In 2017, Colorado’s then-DOC chief called solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days “torture.”

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed a bill — later signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis — to reopen Centennial South, but only if prisons holding male inmates reach 99% capacity for two consecutive months. The bill allowed for 126 of the prison’s beds to be used in the event of reopening.

Senate President Leroy Garcia, the Pueblo Democrat who introduced the bill, described this as an in-case-of-emergency step, as did many other lawmakers. At the time of the bill’s introduction, that 99% threshold had been reached or exceeded 10 months out of the previous year. With a 1.6% vacancy rate as of last month, the system has a bit more breathing room now.

While there is currently no plan in place to reopen the prison, it could happen sooner than expected: In an unexpected move, Denver’s City Council decided this week to sever ties with private companies that run halfway houses in the city, setting off a domino effect that could result in prisoners being reshuffled — some, perhaps, to Centennial South — to make room for a few hundred Denverites who may be reincarcerated.

In July, The Colorado Independent‘s Alex Burness and John Herrick toured Centennial South, along with the Centennial North and Fremont prisons. Also on the tour were Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams and Travis Trani, director of prisons. It was the first time Williams, an appointee of first-term Gov. Jared Polis, had visited Centennial South

Dean Williams, the new director of Colorado's Department of Corrections, tours the Centennial South prison for the first time on July 19, 2019. The prison can fit more than 900 people and could be used if the state prison population gets too high. But Williams says he's committed to a "philosophical" shift that, in theory, promises to limit that population growth. (Photo by Alex Burness)
Dean Williams, the new director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, tours the Centennial South prison for the first time on July 19, 2019. The prison can fit more than 900 people and could be used if the state prison population gets too high. (Photo by Alex Burness)

Cell blocks all have either 15 or 16 cells.

Cells in Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II. (Photo by John Herrick)The cells have metal sinks and toilets, steel mirrors, small desks and cots fit for thin mattresses. Each has a long, narrow window.

Cell in Centennial South. (Photo by John Herrick)

Cells in Centennial South. (Photo by John Herrick)

Centennial South was designed as a place where inmates would stay in their cells for 23 hours per day, and it has no dining hall, no library and few common areas. Exercise rooms are small, windowless and bare except for mounted pull-up handles.

Trani said that, pre-2012, some Colorado inmates would go years without stepping into daylight.

One of the windowless recreation rooms in Centennial South. (Photo by John Herrick)

The exercise rooms are barren, save for these pull-up handles. (Photo by Alex Burness)

Because Colorado no longer sanctions solitary confinement for more than 15 days in a row — making the design of Centennial South obsolete — the legislature’s bipartisan Joint Budget Committee approved $1.1 million last year to begin retro-fitting the prison for potential future use.

A DOC spokeswoman said the money has gone toward construction of recreation yards (pictured below), updates to electrical and cable infrastructure, improvements to common areas and some modifications inside cells.

The newly built recreation yard at Centennial South. (Photo by John Herrick)

Dean Williams, director of the Department of Corrections, tours one of Centennial South’s newly constructed recreation yards. (Photo by John Herrick)

The common areas in the prison now have tables — still in the wrapping during the tour — and DOC officials said people held there would in the future be allowed to eat with their fellow prisoners, as opposed to alone in their cells.

The newly built common area inside a cell block at Centennial South. (Photo by John Herrick)

If Centennial South opens, officials on the tour said, inmates would be allowed 2-by-4 foot spaces for personal decorations on their cell walls, as well as TV and radio in their cells. DOC Director Williams was emphatic that if the building reopens, it would not be the same place or structure it was between 2010 and 2012.

That retro-fitting will be a challenge, he acknowledged.

“This is not a normalized environment,” he said of Centennial South.

Much has changed in Colorado’s DOC since Williams came on board just seven months ago. The prison population, recently projected to skyrocket in coming years, is now projected to stay relatively stable. We took a closer look at this in a story last month.

But Williams made clear that Centennial South might be useful for the DOC in the future, whether or not the inmate population swells above 99% for consecutive months. It is still a fairly new facility and, if successfully retrofitted, could be an asset for the DOC, Williams said.

Part of his reasoning lies in the age and condition of some of the state’s other prisons, including the Fremont Correctional Facility, which was also part of the tour.

Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City. (Photo by John Herrick)

The Fremont prison opened in 1957 and now holds about 1,700 inmates. They’re housed in cell blocks like the one pictured above, which holds 246 people, stacked in a giant, tiered hall.

“It’s a really oppressive environment,” Williams said, adding later that “it’s a profound institutional feel, and I want to get away from that.”

Asked whether he hopes Centennial South never holds inmates again, Williams said, “My druthers are not to increase any of our hard-bed capacity.”

Translation: The prison could be used in a non-emergency case, if the DOC shuffles people around its facilities — presumably, out of some of the older ones that Williams sees as oppressive.

That would be something for the legislature, not Williams alone, to decide. Current law lays out very specific conditions under which the building can be used.

But Garcia said he’s open to the idea that Centennial South could have a use beyond just housing overflow.

“I have not had any conversations with the governor or (Williams) about that,” he said, “but my opinion has been somewhat similar” to Williams’s.

“We should be utilizing and maximizing these buildings that are available,” Garcia added.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Williams sounds soft on crime – prison is supposed to suck. We aren’t building country clubs. Prison should be all about spartan living conditions without any amenities. That’s part of the deterrent. If people wind up there, it is supposed to be punishment.

  2. How many times does a man have to be punished for a non violent crime? The ones who support prisons can pay the bill but I’m not going to ok taking my money to help out department of corrections while inhumane that is. I want reform!

  3. Ya you people who support this aren’t any different then the witch trial days, society members that watched people burn at the stakes, or hung, nailed to a cross, or stoned to death. So now you are just taking a man’s freedom and into a prison you think is for violent dangerous people. Which is not true at all. We have drug addicts serving over 30 years in prison, and how about more then half poplation of Colorado’s prisons aren’t violent offenders. What’s the going cost on a man’s freedom per day? We don’t punish our kids this way, so why are we doing this to adults? Do you even know how much your taxes are paying to keep u supposedly safe from these scary people?
    Please, your being fooled people wake up! Do your research, this is what you support, then by all means Pay pay pay.
    I refuse to support the cdoc prisons!
    Change bills, and for sentence reform! Have evidence to support my claim in CDOC not fulfilling duties required by law.- Paralegal Western Slope

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