Is Colorado Prepared to Divorce from the Dysfunctional Private Prison Relationship?

Colorado lawmakers for the first time are preparing to map out a possible divorce from the private prison industry, and a long-shuttered maximum-security prison could be part of the solution.

A committee tasked with managing the state’s prison population has been workshopping a proposal that calls upon the Colorado Department of Corrections “to study how to end the practice of using private prisons by 2025 in a responsible way.”

The proposed bill also calls for Colorado to begin housing inmates at the remodeled Centennial South as a way to reduce the number of private beds used. The Cañon City prison opened in 2010 to house prisoners in solitary confinement but closed two years later as the state phased out the practice.

The draft bill says that for every prisoner housed at Centennial South, another must be moved out of a private facility until Centennial South is full.

Three of the department’s 25 prisons are privately owned. GEO Group, the world’s largest private prison company, owns one in Colorado Springs, and CoreCivic, the second-biggest player in the industry, owns prisons in Las Animas and Olney Springs. Together, these facilities hold nearly 4,000 of the roughly 20,000 people in DOC custody, according to the department’s September report.

The bill comes as public outrage against the private prison industry has swelled, leading Denver leaders to end contracts with companies running halfway houses and California leaders to pass a law barring the use of private facilities.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who chairs the committee on prison population management, said she assumes she would carry the potential bill in the House.

“We have to ensure that (prisoners) are set up to succeed and that there’s not profiteering that’s happening on the backs of our criminal justice system,” Herod said.

But ending the state’s use of private prisons wouldn’t be simple, said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Even if the state uses all the beds available at Centennial South, she said, it would still have to find space for more than 2,000 other inmates or significantly reduce the overall prison population to make a switch feasible.

The cost of such a change is still unknown and will be a crucial factor in any decisions, she said. Generally, private facilities are able to operate at a lower cost per inmate.

“The bottom line is going to be what that fiscal note says,” Donner said.

Because of those unknowns, DOC Director Dean Williams declined to take a stance on the proposed bill. He said he “philosophically” opposes the private prison industry but that the size of the population he manages puts him “in a difficult situation.”

“I’m concerned about any part of the prison or correctional system where there’s a profit incentive,” he said. “At the same time, I realize that we rely upon three private prisons to provide bed space — beds that we need.”

For the rural communities where CoreCivic’s prisons are located, the loss of the facilities would be devastating for their tax base and the hundreds of prison employees, said Blaine Arbuthnot, Crowley County commissioner. The leaders of Crowley and Bent counties met with Herod last week to discuss their concerns.

“Literally the private prison here pays half our property tax,” Arbuthnot said. “It would be devastating to lose that, not only for our county but for our school district.”

CoreCivic leaders are aware of the possible legislation, company spokesman Brandon Bissell said in a statement. Bissell said the company was proud of its track record in Colorado. Representatives from GEO Group did not return requests for comment on the proposal.

The private prison industry is deeply entrenched in Colorado. The bulk of its business is in community re-entry programs, such as halfway houses and treatment centers. Twenty of Colorado’s 25 biggest cities have at least one facility operated by either GEO or CoreCivic.

The draft bill does not call for the elimination of these re-entry contracts and instead focuses exclusively on the state’s three private DOC prisons. It would not affect the Aurora ICE detention center owned and operated by GEO.

Following direction from state lawmakers early this year, the DOC has been working on a roughly $1 million retrofit of Centennial South. This project included new common dining areas, new outdoor basketball courts, infrastructure improvements and some modifications to some of the 948 cells in the prison.

As it stands, the DOC is only authorized to keep prisoners at Centennial South, also known as CSPII, in the event of severe overcrowding throughout the system. But concerns about population overflow have subsided, and it now appears unlikely that Colorado will exceed the threshold to trigger the facility’s opening any time soon.

Herod said using the prison instead of private facilities gives the state the option to at least start a private prison phase-out sooner than 2025. A clean divorce from private prisons now or in the near future isn’t feasible, she said.

“We currently are under contract with some of these facilities, and we have offenders housed there,” Herod added. “There’s not alternative places to put them, but for CSPII.”

Herod also said that she thinks a phase-out would “likely include buy-backs,” as in the state purchasing some or all of the three private DOC facilities from GEO and CoreCivic.

On Oct. 30, the committee that drafted the bill will vote on whether to refer it to the legislature next session, which opens in January.

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