GEO Group, a Florida-based correctional company, ended a contract with the state to house inmates at its prison in Colorado Springs on Tuesday, forcing the Department of Corrections to find beds for about 651 inmates in a nearly full state prison system.
The company’s decision to stop housing inmates at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center after March 7 will put pressure on state lawmakers to authorize the opening of Centennial South Correctional Facility, a never-used prison in Cañon City. The state’s prisons are currently 96.3% full. And without the opening of Centennial South, the state does not have enough beds to house all 651 inmates from Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center.
Gov. Jared Polis was already planning to move inmates out of the state’s three private prisons due to worries about the level of treatment and training for inmates and philosophical concerns about for-profit incarceration. The governor’s messaging may have expedited the process.
“Since that announcement, and related legislative hearings, we have experienced challenges in retaining and recruiting staff at CMRC,” said Brian Miller, a spokesperson for GEO Group. He added, “The state has made its intentions clear; that it wants to manage this population within its own facilities, and we will work with them toward that end.”
Miller said the contract was due to expire in June and GEO Group was not in negotiations with the Department of Corrections on an extension.
Dean Williams, executive director for the Department of Corrections, said the state had been preparing for the rapid closure of the facility.
“Although we are disappointed by their decision, we are confident that as a department we will be able to manage the considerable impact of this change safely,” Williams said. “The use of private prisons in our state does not just raise philosophical or ethical questions, but also creates serious operational concerns when a for-profit company can choose to close its’ doors and leave the department to navigate what to do with 650 offenders.”
Throughout the year, the prison has been grappling with staffing shortages. The attrition rate — the percent of people who leave positions that later go unfilled — was once as high as 50%, although it is now about 24% after GEO Group increased wages $2 per hour, according to state officials. In December, state officials told the Joint Budget Committee that GEO Group also failed to meet state standards for job training and substance use disorder treatment at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center.
Colorado lawmakers, who will convene for the 2020 legislative session on Wednesday, will have to approve the opening of 948-bed Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II. The prison was constructed in 2010 to hold inmates in solitary confinement but closed in 2012 following a drop in the prison population and changes to the state’s policy on long-term isolation. The prison has since been retrofitted to house low-security inmates in less restricted conditions.
It currently costs the state about $14.7 million annually to house inmates in Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center. To move those inmates into the public prison system, the Department of Corrections is requesting $11 million. 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.
GEO Group, which purchased Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in 2017, said it has not yet decided what to do with the facility without Colorado inmates. Said Miller, “In the near-term, we will be focused on the transition of staff and residents; future facility decisions will be considered and dealt with at a later point in time.”