Colorado’s prison population is dropping, but not fast enough, advocates say

Criminal justice advocates say too many are still locked up and at risk of COVID-19, a disease that may have already killed one inmate

The newly built recreation yard at Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II, on July 19, 2019. The state's prison population is dropping, but not fast enough, advocates say. (Photo by John Herrick)

Colorado’s prison population has dropped to the lowest level since 2004, according to reports from the Colorado Department of Corrections. 

As of April 30, the most recent data available, there are 18,419 inmates in Colorado’s 22 state-owned and two private prisons. In the past month, the Department of Corrections has moved 1,200 people out of the state’s prisons, mostly to parole. An unknown number of those 1,200 include inmates who were paroled early under the governor’s executive order regarding a reduction of prison population during the pandemic. After repeated requests over a two-week period, DOC said it is “not be able to provide the specific numbers of releases” at this time.

Meanwhile, 2019 drug sentencing and parole reforms and a change this year to escape laws have resulted in fewer people going to prison for non-violent crimes.

But this drop may be short-lived. As a precaution during the pandemic, DOC mostly halted intakes from county jails in an effort to free up space within the prison system to help manage the spread of COVID-19. As a result, the number of people sent to prison waiting in jail, known as the jail backlog, has increased by more than 300 in the past month. 

The decline in the prison population so far has fallen short of what criminal justice advocates say is needed during the pandemic, which continues to spread across the state’s prisons. Advocates want to see the prison population low enough so that any inmate with underlying health conditions can have his or her own cell. 

An 86-year-old inmate died on May 1 after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, DOC has said. At least 262 inmates at the Sterling Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. One inmate at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex and two at the CoreCivic-run Crowley County Correctional Facility, which is on lockdown, have tested positive. The Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center is also on lockdown, according to DOC.

Dean Williams, the director for the Department of Corrections, has acknowledged that he has been conservative in releasing inmates. One of the reasons, he has said, is that he doesn’t want to release inmates homeless. 

The process for releasing inmates is slow, often requiring screening of eligible inmates, a decision from the parole board and victim notification, among other steps. 

“It’s a process that doesn’t lend itself well to a crisis when time is of the essence,” said Christie Donner, the director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. 

Donner said that if age alone determined parole, more than a thousand inmates would be eligible for release. But many older inmates may have violent convictions from the tough-on-crime era decades ago preventing their consideration for parole, she said. 

“The people who are the most vulnerable and the most sick are not being considered because they have violent crimes,” Donner said. 

DOC’s special needs parole eligibility requires the inmate to have committed a victimless crime in addition to posing a low public safety risk and having an underlying health condition. Inmates who are within 180 days of their parole eligibility date may qualify for intensive supervision parole. If inmate families have questions about parole eligibility, DOC said they can contact cdoc@state.co.us or they can call 719-226-4569. 

Donner is calling on Gov. Jared Polis to commute the sentences of more inmates. She pointed to the example of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who in April ordered the early release of nearly 1,000 inmates. 

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