GEO Group, a Florida-based company that operates a private prison in Colorado Springs, repeatedly failed this year to meet state standards for security, job training and substance use disorder treatment, state officials told lawmakers this week.
The criticism of conditions at GEO Group’s Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center comes as Gov. Jared Polis seeks permission from lawmakers to begin moving inmates out of the for-profit prison and into the state prison system. To do so, the administration wants to open a vacant state-owned prison in Cañon City known as Centennial South Correctional Facility.
But before that transfer can happen, the Polis administration is asking lawmakers for $11 million in his latest budget request, mostly to staff Centennial South. The high-security prison built for solitary confinement in 2010 and mothballed in 2012 due to changes to state policy on holding inmates in long-term isolation and a drop in the prison population. The department this year made upgrades to “soften” the prison, including adding a recreation yard and tables for inmates to eat.
It currently costs the state about $14.7 million annually to house inmates in Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center.
Colorado has three private prisons, holding about 3,800 inmates, or 20% of the state’s total inmate population of 19,738. Polis is not alone in eyeing a transition away from for-profit incarceration. Lawmakers are also taking steps to move inmates out of private prisons.
The description of the conditions at Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center could help the Polis administration and lawmakers build a case that moving inmates out of the private prison is needed to reduce the state’s above-the-national-average recidivism rate of 50%. That means about half the people who leave prison return at some point. Job training and substance use disorder treatment generally help reduce recidivism by ensuring a smooth transition back to society.
Travis Trani, deputy executive director of prison operations for the Department of Corrections, told the Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday the state requires at least 80% of inmates at Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center to receive job training. According to a DOC audit, between March and May, Trani said, 69% of inmates received job training.
In April, the company lost its license for about two months to deliver substance use disorder treatment. According to an audit by the Office of Behavioral Health, the company was late in filing for a license renewal and a site visit showed “significant compliance concerns.”
As a result, Trani said, 22 inmates have been required to re-enroll in substance use disorder programs. Many of the 666 state inmates in the prison were convicted of felony DUI charges, officials said.
Trani said the facility, month after month, also failed to meet security standards. “It’s not acceptable,” he said. “It’s a liability for the state if something bad were to happen.”
In an emailed statement, a GEO Group spokesperson said, “GEO acknowledges that there have, at times, been compliance findings in monthly audits at [Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center].”
The statement said the company is working with the Department of Corrections to address the findings and, as it stands today, the company has been issued all operational and care-related licenses.
The prison is also grappling with staffing shortages, Trani said. The attrition rate — the percent of people who leave positions that later go unfilled — was once as high as 50%, he said, although it is now about 24% after GEO Group increased wages $2 per hour. The Colorado Independent requested information on the average worker wage at the prison.
The private prison company wanted to cut 10 staff as part of a state contract renewal this summer, officials said, and there was little the state could do to object. The Colorado Independent requested information on the staffing-to-inmate ratios at the prison.
“I was under the gun,” said Dean Williams, the director of the Department of Corrections. “We have 650 men at that facility. We do not have room for 650 men. … I’m not in an equal bidding position. That was one of the things that caused us a great deal of angst.”
The state’s prisons are about 96.5% full, down from last year at this time, in part due to criminal justice reforms that make it harder to send people to prison for drug possession and failed drug tests while on probation or parole, among other reforms.
GEO Group, which purchased Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in 2017, also owns an immigrant detention center in Aurora. The company came under fire this summer for its treatment of detained immigrants. This led to banks pulling investments from the company and Denver City Council voting in August to cut ties with GEO Group and CoreCivic, which operate halfway houses in the city. The contract was extended, but earlier this summer, it was unclear where the people in halfway houses would end up. Denver is now considering purchasing halfway house facilities from GEO Group. Such uncertainty is yet another reason officials say they want inmates out of the GEO Group prison.
“We were all sweating,” Williams recalled. “That was a consideration when we looked at whether we should promote the swap.”
Two other private prisons house Colorado inmates. CoreCivic owns the Bent County Correctional Facility in Las Animas and Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs. This fiscal year, the state paid at least $67 million to these companies to hold its inmates, according to state budget documents.