In 2010, Jenny Chestnut said she was found guilty of shoplifting and sentenced to serve three years in a halfway house in Greeley. After about eight months, she said, she grew sick of the cold jail food, tired of netting $25 per week as a telemarketer after paying housing costs, and upset she wasn’t getting treatment for years of trauma related to sexual abuse and drug addiction.
So, one day, she left and didn’t come back.
“I was not in the right frame of mind,” Chestnut, 47, told The Colorado Independent. “I was just making it through, day by day, just making it look like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Police found her at a motel in Denver about two months later, she said. She was charged and convicted for escape. She said she served two years and two months in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and one-and-a-half years on parole. She now lives in Denver and runs a nonprofit helping women transition out of prison.
Under current law, this kind of “escape” from a halfway house carries the same potential felony charge as breaking out of a prison. As a result, there are more than 1,000 people, or about 5% of the state’s prison population, serving time for escape, according to the Department of Corrections.
Of the 342 people who were charged with escape while in the custody of the Department of Corrections in 2018, three escaped from an actual prison, according to the DOC data. All three have been returned to prison. Nearly all the rest were charged for leaving a halfway house.
The severe penalties for such walkaways could soon change.
The House on Thursday gave final approval to a prison reform bill, HB-1019, which lessens the penalties for walkaways to a lower-level felony if the person’s underlying charge is a violent crime and a misdemeanor if the person’s underlying charge is non-violent. People could still end up serving prison time for leaving a halfway house, but it would be less likely and the sentences may be shorter.
People who leave halfway houses, advocates say, are typically struggling with substance use disorder, mental health issues or pressing family needs at home. And the severe penalties for escape “create a revolving door” back to prison for these people, said Christie Donner, the executive director for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a group that has been pushing the reforms.
In a September 2019 analysis of state data, Donner found that the number of women returned to prison for a new crime while on parole increased 70% last year, compared to a 2% increase for men. The number one charge was for escape. The next most common charge was drug-related. And she found the women were sentenced to an average of 23 months in prison.
Anecdotally, it’s common for women to serve more prison time for leaving a halfway house than they served for their underlying criminal conviction, said Hassan Latif, a formerly incarcerated man who runs Aurora’s Second Chance Center, a re-entry program that includes helping inmates in halfway houses transition back to society. And this, he said, is wrong.
“This is a personal moment of crisis for people who should be embraced with some support at those times,” Latif said of halfway house walkaways.
The Colorado District Attorney Council did not take a position on the bill and declined to comment.
The reforms come as part of a bill that would also study the private prisons in Colorado. The proposed study will no longer focus on how to phase out private prison use by 2025, as originally proposed. Instead, the study now includes an assessment of how to diversify the rural economies that rely on them. Lawmakers, particularly those representing rural communities, have raised concerns that the closure of private prisons, and the loss of jobs and sale tax revenue that comes with them, could harm their communities. But Democrats, who control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office, have philosophical concerns about for-profit incarceration and the level of treatment and rehabilitation inmates received at private prisons.
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, operates the Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in Colorado Springs. Together, the three prisons hold about 3,360 of the state’s 19,668 inmates.
The bill also would help keep prisons like Kit Carson in Burlington shut. The company that owns the facility, CoreCivic, has been negotiating with the Idaho Department of Corrections to house inmates there. But the measure gives the director of the Department of Corrections more power to approve or rescind such contracts between private prison companies and out-of-state corrections agencies.
To make room in the state prison system for the transferred inmates from private prisons, the bill would authorize the opening of 650 beds at the Centennial South Correctional Facility, a now-vacant, high-security prison in Canon City.
Since GEO Group announced in January it would end its contract with the state three months early, the state has been moving inmates out of Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center and into any one of the 22 state prisons. Only 193 inmates remain in the facility, 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.
The bill now awaits the governor’s signature and is expected to be signed into law swiftly.
Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who was a lead sponsor on the bill, said even though the state is opening a new prison, the prison population is declining due to reforms like changes to the escape law.
“People have been unfairly and unjustly put back into prison as a felon,” Herod said of escape charges after the House voted to send the bill to the governor. But, she added, “We’re not done.”
“Colorado still has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country,” she said. “We need to be very diligent about bringing that down safely.”