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The Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday voted to close the men's-only Skyline prison in Cañon City, a 252-bed facility, effective January 2021. They also voted to gut higher ed general fund support by 58%, or $493.2 million, the largest budget cut to date.

Closing the minimum security prison will save the state $1.9 million in the general fund in 2020-21 and almost $5 million the following year. It is one of four minimum-security facilities in Colorado and the only one in Cañon City. 

The facility's 20 employees can transfer elsewhere within the Department of Corrections, likely to other Fremont County prisons, according to JBC staff analyst Steve Allen. 

Allen noted that under an executive order issued by the governor, about 1,140 inmates had been released in the last two months, mostly in April. Those measures were taken to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection to inmates and prison staff. That action freed up beds all over the state prison system, and Skyline already has 36 vacant beds.

A second prison, the La Vista Correctional Facility, a women's prison in Pueblo, was recommended by the governor's budget office for a reduction in bed capacity, also for budget reasons. But Allen recommended against it, as the prison might need the beds for social distancing measures.

"It is far from certain that the current population reduction, which is clearly connected to the coronavirus pandemic, is permanent," Allen wrote in a staff memo. He also noted there are only two women-only facilities in the state and reducing the bed capacity would be risky. 

La Vista, located on the campus of the Colorado Mental Health Institute, has 683 beds, and the recommendation was to reduce its capacity by 147 beds. Reducing its beds will save $788,630 in 2020-21 and $841,220 the following year, both general fund costs.

Allen apologized for being "timid" in his recommended cut for corrections, which the committee approved. The department is 7% of the state budget, he told the JBC. For the department to meet a proportional share of the $2 billion the JBC needs, the cut would be $144 million, a "breathtaking" amount, Allen said.

To achieve those savings, DOC would have to close nine of the 19 state-operated prisons and release 5,000 offenders, he said. According to his memo, that's about one-third of the total prison population.

In the wake of the Great Recession, in 2011 and 2012 the state closed two prisons, including the Fort Lyon Correctional facility in Bent County, which is now a residential facility for long-term homeless people with substance use disorders. The Centennial South II prison, which reopened recently, also was closed, in part because the state was moving away from solitary confinement facilities. 

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