Centennial South, a Colorado prison shuttered in 2012, reopens

Lawmakers authorized Centennial South's reopening in addition to reforms for people in halfway houses

The newly built common area at Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSPII, on July 19, 2019. Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill on March 7 to open the prison. (Photo by John Herrick)

Gov. Jared Polis on Friday signed into law a bill to reopen Centennial South Correctional Facility in Cañon City, marking a new chapter in a hard-fought debate over what to do with a $200 million facility that was built for solitary confinement in 2010 and shuttered two years later.  

The decision to reopen the prison comes as Democrats plan to move the state’s inmates out of private prisons and into the state system. They have said they have philosophical concerns over for-profit incarceration and doubts about the level of care inmates receive in private prisons before their transition back to society. The law authorizes the use of 650 beds at the Cañon City prison. The extra state prison beds could help create space in the state system for the more than 3,000 inmates who remain in Colorado’s two private prisons. 

Related: Inside Centennial South, the maximum-security prison Colorado could soon reopen

It’s no coincidence the governor signed the bill Friday. The Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center, a private prison in Colorado Springs, all but closed on Friday after GEO Group announced it would end its contract with the state three months early. Since that January announcement, the state has moved all of its approximate 650 inmates out, according to the latest prison population report.

The state’s prisons are now 99.7% full with 19,586 inmates. There are more men in the state’s prisons than there are beds, forcing some to sleep on “sled beds,” according to Annie Skinner, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections. Sled beds are human-sized plastic trays that rest on the prison floor. 

In addition to adding new beds to the state prison system, the new law includes reforms to keep people out of prison in the first place. Here’s a summary of the plan. 

Reopens Centennial South: 

The high-security prison, previously known as CSP II, was built in 2010 for solitary confinement but closed two years later when the prison population dropped and the state changed its policy for holding inmates in long-term isolation. The state still uses solitary confinement but says it limits it to 15 consecutive days. 

The state has tried to sell the facility without success, state records show. And both former Gov. John Hickenlooper and Polis have sought to justify its reopening. 

Last session, lawmakers and advocates who long opposed its controversial reopening agreed to support it with the concurrent passage of major sentencing and parole reforms aimed at driving down the prison population. Since then, with approval from lawmakers, the state has spent more than a million dollars adding dining tables and an outdoor recreation yard. 

Construction is underway at Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSPII, on July 19, 2019. The state could move inmates into the facility as soon as March 7 after GEO Group ended a contract to house inmates at a private prison in Colorado Springs. (Photo by John Herrick)

Private prison study

National research shows recidivism rates — the likelihood a former inmate ends up back in prison — are higher for inmates who serve time in private prisons than in public ones. No such studies comparing private and public prisons exist for prisons in Colorado, a state with a 50% recidivism rate, which is about 11% higher than the national average. Lawmakers are concerned about this national research, and bolstering their concerns was an assessment by the Polis administration that conditions at Cheyenne Mountain failed state standards for inmate job training and substance use treatment, both of which help reduce the odds of returning to prison after release. 

With this in mind, lawmakers at the start of the session sought to study how to phase out the use of private prisons by 2025. After Cheyenne Mountain’s likely closure, there will be two private prisons remaining in Colorado, one in Bent County and another in Crowley County, both rural communities. Both prisons are owned by CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based private prison company. 

Upon hearing of lawmakers’ intentions, Bent and Crowley county officials hired lobbyists and organized residents to go to the Capitol to testify against the bill, saying closing the prisons would hurt their economies.

Related: Private prisons on the chopping block next legislative session

The study was all but scrapped. Instead, it will now assess the impact of closure of such prisons on rural economies, include a “utilization analysis” of state and private prisons in Colorado. It is also to provide recommendations on how to diversify economies that rely on private prisons. 

Keep private prisons shut: 

CoreCivic is negotiating with the Idaho Department of Corrections to reopen the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington to house more than 1,000 Idaho inmates. The Eastern Plains prison was closed in 2016.

But, at the request of the Polis administration, the prison reform bill was amended to include a provision that gives his director for the Department of Corrections, Dean Williams, more power over whether to approve or rescind such contracts. 

Related: Polis signals he wants private prisons like Kit Carson kept shut

Advocates wanted such contracts outlawed. 

Skinner, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said the department has received a request to house Idaho inmates in Kit Carson and is reviewing it.

Halfway house walkaways: 

A provision in the bill that attracted almost no debate this session could affect hundreds of people charged each year with “escape” for leaving a halfway house. 

Before the new law was signed, people who walked away from a halfway house faced the same felony charge — and prison time — as someone who broke out of a prison. The new law lowers penalties for people who leave a halfway house and classifies them as a “unauthorized absence” rather than escape. 

Related: Leaving a halfway house can land you in prison. That could soon change