Democratic lawmakers are moving ahead with plans to begin closing private prisons in Colorado.
The Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee passed a proposed bill Wednesday that could slash by nearly 30% the number of inmates held in the state’s three private prisons by opening a shuttered high-security prison in Cañon City to hold inmates. About 3,800 of the state’s 19,700 inmates are housed in private prisons, according to a report by the Department of Corrections.
The proposed bill would also commission a study by the Department of Corrections on how to “end the practice of using private prisons by 2025 in a responsible way.”
The proposed bill passed 4-2 along party lines. It still requires committee approval, a vote in the House and Senate, and the signature of Gov. Jared Polis. The odds of the proposed bill becoming law during the next legislative session are high; Polis campaigned on closing private prisons and is proposing to close a private prison in his budget request, and the House and Senate are controlled by Democrats who are generally sympathetic to the idea.
“We shouldn’t be using a profit motive in the Department of Corrections,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who backed the proposed bill.
Republicans who voted against the proposal say they worry closing the state’s three private prisons could hurt the rural communities that rely on the industry for taxes. They also had philosophical concerns about the role of government in the matter.
“It’s not our job to determine the future for an industry,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling who proposed three amendments to derail the main elements of the proposal.
None of the state’s private prisons lie in Sonneberg’s district. But the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington did. That facility closed last summer, in part due to a decline in the prison population. Since then, 142 jobs and $1 million in annual tax revenue have been lost.
The proposal would authorize the full opening of the 948-bed Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II, in Cañon City. CSP II was built in 2010 to house inmates in solitary confinement but it was shut down in 2012, in part because the state’s prison population had fallen and in part because Colorado placed limits on the use of solitary confinement.
During the 2018 session, lawmakers authorized its partial reopening, and the legislature’s bipartisan Joint Budget Committee approved $1.1 million to begin retro-fitting the prison for potential future use. That included building a recreation yard and adding benches where inmates can sit and eat.
Under the proposed bill approved by the interim committee Wednesday, the prison would be fully opened. Every inmate moved into CSP II would require the Department of Corrections to move an inmate out of one of the state’s private prisons until CSP II is filled.
Reopening the facility has been controversial given that it was built for the purpose of punishing inmates with long-term isolation. Lawmakers have long sought to keep the prison shut and instead drive down the state’s prison population through criminal justice reforms.
That view changed when Gov. Jared Polis embraced a number of criminal justice reforms while also calling for CSP II to be opened as a backup plan. His plan also called for turning the prison into an intake center, turning the current intake center — the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, or DRDC — into a long-term care and mental health treatment center for inmates. This plan hasn’t gained traction yet.
CoreCivic owns the Bent County Correctional Facility in Las Animas and Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs. GEO Group, Inc. owns the Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in Colorado Springs. This fiscal year, the state paid at least $67 million to these companies to hold its inmates, according to state budget documents.
GEO Group, which operates an immigration detention center in Aurora, came under fire this summer for its treatment of detained immigrants. This led to banks pulling investments from GEO Group and Denver City Council voting in August to cut ties with GEO Group and CoreCivic, which operate halfway houses in the city.
Brandon Bissell, the manager of public affairs for CoreCivic, said the company is aware of the proposed legislation. In response to a request for comment, he said the company offers a range of “high-quality correctional services and recidivism-reducing programs” at its two private prisons in Colorado.
It costs the state about $68 to hold an inmate in a private prison compared to $108 in a state prison, according to a report from the DOC. Criminal justice reformers see this price discrepancy as an indication that fewer rehabilitative services are offered, which, they argue, then drives the state’s 50% recidivism rate — about 11 points higher than the national average. The state, however, does not have separate data on the recidivism rate for prisoners who served time in private prisons.
But Gov. Polis said national studies indicate recidivism rates increase when inmates serve time in private prisons. His budget request to lawmakers would close Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center and place an equivalent 645 inmates into Centennial South.
“One of the goals that we have as an administration is increasing public safety by reducing recidivism,” Polis told reporters Friday. “Studies done in several states have shown that recidivism is about 10% to 15% less with public prisons that it is with some of the for-profit, private prisons.”
Centennial South is still not in use even though lawmakers authorized it to be partially opened this year. The bill to open the prison, signed into law by Polis, requires that the state’s prisons holding male inmates reach 99% for two consecutive months before 126 prison beds would be opened up. The bill proposed Wednesday would repeal this authorization and instead open the entire prison.
The state’s prison vacancy rate has only increased since lawmakers authorized Centennial South’s limited opening, likely in part due to several reforms aimed at lightening drug sentences and preventing parole revocations. The state’s prisons are about 97.8% full.
Lawmakers also passed changes to the state’s laws for “escape” so that certain people who break an ankle bracelet on parole or leave a halfway house without permission are less likely to be sent back to prison. Currently, people charged with attempted escape can be sent back to prison with a new felony conviction.
The legislative session begins Jan. 8.
This story was updated Friday with a comment from Gov. Jared Polis.