The Polis administration wants to open a state prison ASAP. Here’s why lawmakers haven’t signed off yet

Lawmakers are working to strike a delicate balance amid budget constraints and resistance to opening a prison without reforms

The entrance to Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II, on July 19, 2019. With GEO Group cutting a contract with the state, the Polis administration is asking for permission to open at least two towers at CSP II. (Photo by John Herrick)

Colorado lawmakers are scrambling to nail down a plan to create space in the state’s prison system after the prison company GEO Group announced this month it will end a contract with the state come March. The Florida-based company’s decision will force hundreds of inmates from its prison in Colorado Springs into public prisons where there are too few beds to safely hold them all. 

To make room, the Department of Corrections is asking the state legislature for permission to open up a section of Centennial South Correctional Facility in Cañon City. Formerly known as CSP II, the high-security prison was built in 2010 but closed in 2012 after a drop in the prison population and changes to the state’s policy on solitary confinement. There would have to be a shuffling of inmates throughout the state prison system because the low-security inmates from GEO Group’s Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center cannot legally be placed into Centennial South. 

Despite warning in December that GEO Group could give the state two month’s notice, lawmakers haven’t signed off on the prison’s opening. They are working to thread a needle that not only works within the tight constraints of the budget this year, but also pleases criminal justice reformers who would likely oppose opening a new prison without legal changes intended to reduce the number of people locked up in prisons. 

“I would like to see reforms with the opening,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who chairs of the Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee. Herod has been spearheading the bill that would open part or all of Centennial South. 

A key reform in her bill would lower the penalties for inmates who break an ankle bracelet on parole or leave a halfway house. Currently, this is considered escape, which can result in the same felony charge and prison time as someone who breaks out of prison by hopping a fence or digging a tunnel.

Herod also wants to study how to phase out the use of private prisons entirely by 2025 or sooner. 

Aside from CMRC, there are two prisons in Colorado — the Bent County Correctional Facility in Las Animas and Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs — owned by CoreCivic. The three private prisons hold about 22% of the state’s total inmate population of 17,777, according to the Department of Corrections’ December prison population estimate. The state’s prisons — not including private prisons or halfway houses — are 96.9% full. That leaves about 430 open beds in the state system, too few to safely hold approximately 550 inmates in Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center without using so-called sled beds, which allow inmates to sleep on the floor. The Department of Corrections said last week it moved about 100 CMRC inmates into the state prison system. GEO Group said DOC continues to move inmates out of the prison and there will be about 350 inmates in CMRC as of Jan. 21. 

Meanwhile, the state budget is tight this year. Gov. Jared Polis has a long wish list of other priorities, which is making lawmakers think twice about handing over the estimated $11 million it would cost to open two towers at Centennial South. Doing so would add more than 600 beds to the state system. 

About 100 inmates at CMRC will reach their mandatory release date by the time the GEO Group contract ends in March, lawmakers note. And given that Cheyenne Mountain is a re-entry facility, others may be ready to be transitioned out into halfway houses. 

“Maybe we speed up that movement into the community with no risk to public safety,” said Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs. He added, “Sometimes there are people who have received an acceptance to community corrections and the bed isn’t ready or hasn’t been funded. We are looking at providing more money to community corrections.” 

Dean Williams, the director of the Department of Corrections, said he generally agrees with the reforms and ideas being discussed. But he doesn’t want reforms bogging down what he described as an urgent matter. 

Aside from the inmates housed at CMRC, Williams said another 350 inmates could enter the state prison system by the end of June, the result of Denver ending its contracts with halfway houses owned by GEO Group and CoreCivic. 

“I want to provide a sense of urgency. We need stuff to happen now. I don’t want anything that is going to tie up the efforts to get us there,” Williams said. 

He also said GEO Group is losing money every month on its contract with the state. 

“Can the company make it for two months?” Williams asked. 

GEO Group said it would not comment on whether it is losing money at CMRC. 

Centennial South is still not in use even though lawmakers authorized it to be partially opened last 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. But the prison population has been dropping since lawmakers authorized Centennial South’s limited opening, in part due to several reforms aimed at reducing drug sentences and preventing parole revocations

More than 1,000 people marched on July 12, 2019 in protest of the detention of immigrants in private prisons, including the detention facility in Aurora, Colo. run by GEO Group.
GEO Group’s immigration detention facility in Aurora. Department of Corrections officials are concerned about the conditions of a prison owned by the company in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Cullen Lobe)

Still, lawmakers have been considering opening up more of the prison ever since the Polis administration made clear it wanted to move inmates out of the Cheyenne County Re-entry Center. One year ago, the first week Williams stepped on the job, he said he was briefed on problems at the Colorado Springs facility. In August, Williams said, he learned staffing levels at the prison turned over nearly 60%, with the company repeatedly failing staffing levels required under its state contract, which resulted in the state withholding payments. An internal audit found GEO Group failed to meet state security standards, too. And an Office of Behavioral Health inspection found the company didn’t meet state standards, resulting in the temporary revocation of its license to provide substance use disorder treatment. 

A spokesperson for GEO Group said the company acknowledges that there have, at times, been compliance findings in monthly audits at CMRC.

“We work collaboratively with the CDOC to address these findings and, as it stands today, GEO has been issued all operational and care-related licenses at CMRC,” said Brian Miller, a company spokesman. “Just like any public or private entity, we strive to do our best and to improve our service delivery, operations, and client programs while providing a safe and secure environment that promotes successful reentry services.”

But for Williams, the final straw came when the company set a condition for renewing its contract with the state: it wanted to cut 10 staff, including security positions. 

“If I’m dealing with a for-profit company and they’re losing money,” Williams said. “What kind of longevity and trust am I going to have in the contract?” 

Williams signed a new contract anyway. He said didn’t have enough beds in the state prison system not to. But in October, he stopped negotiating a new contract, and a month later, Polis announced his plans to move inmates out of the private prison. And in December, Williams asked lawmakers for the money to open Centennial South with a stark warning: Any day, GEO Group could give the state 60 days to find a new place for the state’s inmates. 

In January, the company did just that, citing the governor’s announcement as a barrier to keeping staff. Williams said he was aware that the announcement from the governor could lead to staffing retention issues. 

The Department of Corrections on Friday will present new estimates for how much it will cost to open Centennial South to the Joint Budget Committee and the House and Senate Judiciary committees. 

This story was updated on Jan. 21, 2020 with additional comments from GEO Group. 

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