Gov. Jared Polis is seeking permission from lawmakers that would make it easier for his administration to deny the transfer of out-of-state inmates into private prisons in Colorado, doubling down on his effort to move the state away from for-profit incarceration.
His administration requested an amendment to a prison reform bill, House Bill 1019, that would give the governor more power to deny contracts between private prison companies and out-of-state corrections agencies. Only under “exigent circumstances” or in order to “protect public health and safety” would such contracts be approved, the bill states.
The move signals his administration may block a plan by CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based private prison company, to contract with the Idaho Department of Corrections to reopen the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington and house more than 1,000 inmates. The eastern plains prison was closed in 2016.
The administration has not yet received the official request to move inmates into Colorado. A spokesman for the governor’s office said, “If a request is received, the Department of Corrections and Governor’s Office will extensively vet and review the request before any decision is made.”
A public information officer for the Idaho Department of Correction was not available for comment in time for publication.
House Bill 1019 would study how to phase out private prisons in Colorado by 2025. The Polis administration supports the bill, which would also authorize the opening of two towers at Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II, in Cañon City. The $200 million facility was built in 2010 to hold inmates in solitary confinement but closed in 2012 due to changes to the state’s policy on holding inmates in long-term isolation and a drop in the prison population.
As lawmakers were debating a prison reform bill last month, the Idaho Department of Corrections began negotiating a plan with CoreCivic to move 1,200 medium to close-custody inmates to Kit Carson Correctional Facility. Close-custody inmates typically have a history of escape from a secure facility or a “serious” institutional disciplinary history, according to the Idaho Department of Corrections. Colorado law prohibits the state from housing its close-custody inmates in a private prison unless the governor declares a correctional emergency.
According to current state law, the Department of Corrections has the authority to approve plans to move inmates from out of state and into private prisons in Colorado. But such approval “shall not be unreasonably withheld,” the law states. The amendment would give the governor more discretion.
Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor’s office, would not say whether Polis wants to keep Kit Carson closed. Instead, he said the administration is committed to reducing private prison use in the state in a “just and responsible manner.”
“Given this goal, we believe that out of state offenders should only be housed in private prisons in Colorado when necessary to protect public health and safety,” Cahill said in an email.
Despite this commitment, some criminal justice advocates want the governor and lawmakers to outright ban the transfer of out-of-state inmates into Colorado.
“It opens Colorado up to unnecessary liability and cost,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “We’ve had riots and major security instances when we’ve imported prisoners from out of state. They don’t like it.”
A letter from the CCJRC to Dean Williams, the director for the Department of Corrections, cites examples in the last two decades when inmates rioted at prisons owned or leased by private companies: in 1999, Washington inmates rioted at Crowley County Correctional Facility, which is owned by CoreCivic; in 2004, Washington and Wyoming inmates rioted at the same facility; in 2009, Arizona inmates housed at Huerfano Correctional Facility, also owned by CoreCivic, created security disturbances; and in 2010, a group of Alaska inmates rioted at the Hudson Correctional Facility, which is leased by Geo Group.
The letter also outlined terms and conditions for approving contracts between out-of-state corrections agencies and prison companies, including ensuring adequate staffing levels, liabilities for reimbursing the state in the event of an incident or riot, allowing free phone calls to families, and barring the transfer of inmates with mental health or medical needs. None of these conditions were included in the bill.
Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for CoreCivic, which operates 37 facilities in Colorado, mostly re-entry and treatment facilities, said the amendment jeopardizes a 20-year partnership between CoreCivic and the state.
“We’ve made significant capital investments, particularly in rural Colorado, and created meaningful employment opportunities for the chaplains, educators, counselors and correctional officers who care for inmates in our facilities every day,” Gilchrist said. “Like Colorado, other states are working to address capacity issues, and CoreCivic is able to provide a relief valve to help avoid dangerous overcrowding.”
CoreCivic operates two prisons in Colorado, the Bent County Correctional Facility in Las Animas and the Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs. GEO Group, a Florida-based company, also owns Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in Colorado Springs. Together, the three prisons hold 3,360 of the state’s 19,668 inmates.
But in January, GEO Group said it would end its contract to house state inmates three months before it was set to expire in June. The company said the governor’s announcement in November to move inmates out of the prison made it hard to keep staff. GEO Group was already having trouble staffing the prison, among other issues. Only 193 inmates remain in Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center, down from 643 in December, according to DOC data. After the transfer, the state’s prisons are 99.5% full. The last time the state prison system was this full was in June of 2017.
Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who chairs the Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee and a lead sponsor of the bill, said she would like to see the transfer of out-of-state inmates into Colorado’s private prisons banned. But she said the stakes for the House Bill 1019 are high and she trying to balance enacting reforms without jeopardizing the bill’s passage.
Lawmakers debated the prison reform bill Wednesday night for about two hours. House Republicans lined up to oppose the bill, saying it would hurt rural economies. Earlier this week, Crowley and Bent counties, where prisons owned CoreCivic are located, hired a lobbyist to work on House Bill 1019.
Several Republican lawmakers said the legislature should authorize the opening of Centennial South without the reforms in House Bill 1019, including the study to end the use of private prisons.
Herod, the bill sponsor, said efforts to simply open Centennial South have failed three times in the past, in part because she opposed them.
“I will again,” Herod said, “if we don’t have the right legs to the stool for criminal justice reform.”
The House passed the bill Thursday morning by a 39-22 vote, mostly along party lines. The bill now heads to the Senate.