CMRC bunks

Executive director Sean Foster shows an empty bunk room on the third floor of the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center in Colorado Springs.

The battle over reopening a renovated solitary confinement state prison in Fremont County and a private prison in Burlington continues on in the Senate this week, with two bills that could determine the future of both.

House Bill 1019, which is scheduled for a hearing late Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, allows for the reopening of Centennial South, also known as CSP2 in Fremont County, to a maximum of 650 inmates, who would be relocated from other medium-security prisons around the state.

That's become a critical issue with the closing of the Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center, which is due to end operations on March 7. The GEO Group announced it would close the facility after Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers said they wanted to close privately-run state prisons. That led employees at Cheyenne Mountain to start job-hunting, leaving GEO with no option other than to close.

Also included in HB 1019 are two other provisions affecting rural Colorado counties. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, has made clear that her intention is to see all private prisons gone, replaced with state-run facilities. "We are attempting to move in a direction where we will not rely on private prisons" through a change from private to state management, which would provide employees with better pay and benefits, she told Colorado Politics recently.  

One provision in the bill is a study on the feasibility of closing the rest of the state's private prisons in Bent and Crowley counties. The bill as introduced called it a "how," but Herod, bowing to testimony that the closures would devastate rural economies, allowed the study to look at "whether" to close private prisons.

The other provision, added in the House Judiciary Committee, changes the approval process for allowing other states to house inmates in Colorado private prisons. Idaho wants to move 1,200 inmates to the shuttered Kit Carson Correctional Facility in Burlington. 

Under current law, DOC can approve private prisons accepting inmates from other states, and has done so for years. Kit Carson housed inmates from Idaho, as many as 250, up until 2012. But an amendment to HB 1019 offered by Herod and the governor's office, changed that approval process to allow only the governor and the executive director of DOC to make that determination and only under "exigent" (pressing) circumstances.

Opponents claim that would allow the governor to turn down any request to house inmates from another state, which would fall in line with Herod's opposition to the Idaho deal.. 

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said an amendment to strip out the permission language will be offered in the committee hearing this evening and is likely to be one of several on the bill. 

"This is a terrible bill to begin with. The message it sends is that we'll figure out how to eliminate private prisons," rather than discussing the value of private prisons in the corrections industry and their value to the economies of rural Colorado.

"I have no illusion that I can kill it," but will work to make it better, he told Colorado Politics.

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins at 1:30 p.m. but HB 1019 is the last bill on an agenda of seven measures.

In earlier action Wednesday, the Senate let stand changes to House Bill 1243, which stripped $1.1 million in funding from the Department of Corrections supplemental budget bill. 

The funding is tied to the reopening of Centennial South, also known as CSP2 in Fremont County. In 2019, DOC asked for $1.1 million to construct a recreation yard at CSP2 in preparation for its reopening for 126 inmates under emergency circumstances, although at the time, the General Assembly had not yet authorized that move. The prison was constructed as a 23/7 administrative segregation — also known as solitary confinement — facility, but closed in 2012 when state policy moved away from large-scale solitary confinement. It has sat vacant ever since.

The Joint Budget Committee in 2019 turned down the DOC request for lack of statutory authority, so DOC tapped into a deferred maintenance fund instead. The department came back to the JBC last month to ask for that money to replenish the deferred maintenance fund.

That didn't fly well in the House, and with the support of 18 Democrats and 20 of the chamber's Republicans, the House stripped that money out.

The supplemental bill went through Senate Appropriations on Tuesday and was debated by the full Senate on Wednesday. 

Usually, JBC members in the opposite chamber will try to restore a budget bill back to its original form, but that didn't happen in either hearing. No one advocated for that funding to be restored.

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