In an industrial area of southeast Colorado Springs, south of the county jail and a jaunt off Interstate 25, change is happening fast. Driven out by politics and money, the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center will be an empty jailhouse by March 7. The state's handling of inmates is changing equally as fast to keep up.

Leaders at the state Capitol are talking about evolutionary change in criminal justice at the same time they're talking about spending $9 million in a hurry to solve a problem partly of their own making. They're sending a political signal to private prisons that they are no longer welcome by the Democrats ruling state government as well as by the city of Denver.

Gov. Jared Polis announced on Nov. 1 that he planned to pull the plug on the private prison deal by the end of the current fiscal year, but on Jan. 7, GEO Group, a corporation that operates prisons for states and monitoring units for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, announced it would shutter Cheyenne Mountain on March 7 after operating it since 2017. 

Mistakes were made when the state announced it was shuttering Cheyenne Mountain, which prompted the company to exercise its 60-day pullout clause, said Rep. Kim Ransom, a Republican from Douglas County who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, the bipartisan panel of legislators charged with finding the money to manage the state's next steps.

“Cheyenne Mountain was really stuck in a bind we put them in,” she said.

The pullout gives the Department of Corrections a ticking clock to find medium-security beds for as many as 642 inmates. 

Between Jan. 10 and Jan. 29, DOC relocated 433 inmates to state prisons in Sterling, Rifle and Fremont County. 

On the day, Jan. 29, that Colorado Politics visited the facility, the third floor was vacant. Bunk rooms, many that housed eight inmates each, had been cleaned and mattresses turned. The common room, where inmates watch TV, was empty except for the wall-mounted TV. A few pieces of exercise equipment were still in place.

Cheyenne Mountain has all the security of a prison but not as much of the look. There’s a computer center, and on the day of the visit a half-dozen inmates were at the keyboards, working on resumes or improving computer skills. There are classrooms and a library on every floor, as well as a mental health clinician.

The Polis administration has a goal to get Colorado out of the private prison business. Corrections is a core function of state government, and the administration believes it's the state's responsibility to take care of the facilities and employees who provide that function, said Aaron Greco, a lobbyist for the Department of Corrections. Corrections officials said CMRC has not complied with contract obligations and has other performance deficiencies, which they say demonstrates why the move is needed.

Those who work at the private prison — including its current warden and others, with decades of experience at DOC — say the problems are mostly minor, and that the department's own annual reports support that assertion.

This is not just a story of one prison. It's a story of three prisons, the other two in Bent and Crowley counties, and fears about the whims and momentum of politics.

Politics of incarceration

Private prisons have long been beasts of political burden, mixing suspicions about profit-driven justice to keep beds full with cheaper costs than state-run institutions. That concern has especially permeated the question of facilities housing undocumented immigrants. The humanitarian crisis rose to new heights when thousands of children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border last year, under order of the Trump administration.

The ICE Detention Center in Aurora, operated by GEO Group, has weathered accusations of abuse and maltreatment of inmates, attracting protests and weekly inspections by U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a rising-star Democrat from Aurora.

Last August, new liberal members of the Denver City Council sought to drive out GEO and CoreCivic, which operate six halfway houses for about 500 recently released offenders in the city.

Leaders are still trying to work out a contract extension or another solution, rather than keeping people who would go into a community release program in state prisons that can't currently absorb them. 

Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, is co-sponsoring legislation this session that could drive private prisons from the state.

Over the summer, a legislative committee heard testimony that led her and other lawmakers to believe that profit-driven corporations don't deliver the rehabilitation and education programs inmates need to lead productive and meaningful lives once they're free. 

"There's real questions about that, and given GEO's decision to get out of the game, it's forced the state's hand to figure out a meaningful solution quickly," she said.

GEO's decision to close Cheyenne Mountain early accelerated the timeline.

Problems, solutions elusive

As luck would have it, the state has a vacant prison in Fremont County called Centennial South, built for solitary confinement prisoners but closed for nearly a decade.

The General Assembly is looking at adding about $3 million to resolve the immediate housing crisis caused by the CMRC closure. The Department of Corrections also wants an additional $5.5 million to open two towers at Centennial South to eventually move about 650 closed-custody inmates (the highest level of custody) from state prisons to Centennial South.

Legislative leaders aren’t happy being painted in a corner with a crisis, hastily making a decision with the long-range implications to tie up precious millions annually.

They also aren’t happy with what feels like a moving target when it comes to prison population forecasts, cost projections and even the validity of information about the effectiveness of lower-cost private beds.

Steve Allen, the principal legislative analyst for the Joint Budget Committee staff, said the reason the state has an empty prison it can use is because of poor projections that led to its construction.

“You could build a prison based on the inaccuracy of a five-year forecast,” he said. “We did.”

The state can't afford more costly mistakes, especially based on thin information, Allen said.

He repeatedly called DOC’s annual reviews of CMRC that showed no significant problems “embarrassing."

Allen said that if legislators are to discuss eliminating private prisons, they need an accurate view of how they’re performing.

He said he found only one year — 2013 — that he felt gave a thorough analysis, because it measured recidivism in private prisons versus regular state-run facilities. 

“That’s something that deserves to be considered when you’re making judgments about whether you should stop relying on private prisons, which are, I can tell you, much less expensive to operate,” the budget analyst said.

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada, said she was troubled by the poor information Allen flagged.

“It is a little concerning because we are sitting here making really critical decisions about the direction and the future of what we’re going to do, with regard to our use of private prisons, and those kinds of reports, I think we have to rely on them,” she said.

As of 2018, Colorado's recidivism rate is 50%, 10 percentage points higher than the national average, and lawmakers often point to that rate, fifth highest in the nation, when talking about criminal justice issues.

Shedding inmates

Allen suggested lawmakers consider something with adults they already do in the juvenile system: When the system reaches capacity, administrators determine the least-risky kids to release.

“As far as I know, that’s never been done at the adult level,” he said. “But if we’re running into capacity problems that would be something we could consider doing.”

He said if there were public concerns, lawmakers then could say, “All right, we’ll build another prison for you.”

That comes at a time when lawmakers are discussing closing the other two private prisons operated by CoreCivic.

That came up during a Jan. 28 hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. House Bill 1019 comes from the Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee. Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, among the General Assembly’s most ardent advocates for closing private prisons, is the bill’s sponsor.

The legislation has two purposes: opening up more of Centennial South, up to 650 beds, and to require the Department of Corrections to conduct a feasibility study on closing the other two private prisons.

The bill is in line with the administration's goal to eventually reduce and eliminate the use of private prisons, said DOC lobbyist Greco, although for now "we can't operate without our private partners," he said.

When it was introduced, the bill set a 2025 deadline for private prisons to get out, but Herod then amended out a set date.

But that was of little comfort to county commissioners from Bent and Crowley counties, where those two private prisons are located.

Herod made clear 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, she said. 

The study proposed under HB 1019 would require an analysis of the economic impacts on affected communities, including the loss of local tax revenue, and an analysis of the impact that reducing private prison beds would have on local governments and community-based providers.

Local impact

Commissioners in Bent and Crowley counties have a pretty good idea about what would happen to their counties should those two prisons close. They told Colorado Politics that it would force both counties into bankruptcy.

For Crowley County, that’s not an empty threat. The Crowley County Correctional Facility is a medium-security facility located in Olney Springs. It has a capacity of 1,894 beds and opened in 1998. The prison generates 54% of Crowley County’s property tax revenue. 

The county has been in decline since the 1970s, when farmers and ranchers sold off their water rights to the Crowley County Land and Development Company, which in turn sold those water rights to Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Close the prison, and the county goes under, Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh told Colorado Politics after the Jan. 28 hearing.

Bent County commissioners say the same is likely true for their community. It gets 25% of its property taxes from the Bent County Correctional Facility in Las Animas, which houses 1,466 inmates.

The commissioners are skeptical of the promises made by Herod that she’d be mindful of the economic impact that closing the prisons would have on the county. They’ve been there before.

Bent County has relied on prisons for its tax base and/or employment for decades. In 2001, the state took over operations at the Fort Lyon Veterans Hospital and converted it to a state-run prison. That lasted until 2012, when Gov. John Hickenlooper closed it and converted it into a facility for chronically-homeless people with chronic substance abuse issues.

The jobs went away with the prison. The VA hospital employed about 700; the prison, about 200. As a rehab facility, Fort Lyon employs 35, according to the Department of Local Affairs.

That leaves the private prison in Las Animas as the biggest property tax base for Bent County. Bent County Commissioner Chuck Netherton said closing the two prisons would result in the loss of 500 jobs and $2.5 million in property taxes, not to mention losses in sales tax.

“It would severely cripple two of Colorado’s poorest counties,” he told Colorado Politics. “This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

HB1019 hearing

Bent and Crowley County commissioners testify on House Bill 1019 on January 28 and the impact that closing their prisons would have on their economy. 

Herod told Colorado Politics her intention was not to shutter the prisons entirely, but to transition them into state-run facilities, which would provide employees with better pay and benefits.

Cost to society

Ransom doesn’t venture a lot of opinions of justice reform or the politics of driving private prisons out of the state.

“My approach is the numbers,” she said. “I’m coming at this from a budget standpoint.”

She projects that re-opening the Canon City prison is the only solution, because of the forced timeline of a prison closing just weeks away.

“We have to deal with what is, not what I think should have happened a couple of months ago,” Ransom said.

She’s worried that the soured deal at Cheyenne Mountain might lead to early closures at the other private prisons.

“It costs us more for the state to run any enterprise,” Ransom said. “If you look at the cost of private prisons, they’re significantly less.”

Employees at state-owned prisons enjoy state benefits, including a retirement system that has proven expensive, she said. 

“We’re really opening a door from which there would be no return,” Ransom said of approving the supplemental request.

Political tug-of-war

The public definitely has a stake in the matter, said Alexandra Wilkes, the national spokeswoman for a private prison trade association that started late last year, the Day 1 Alliance.

“Let's be clear: If these efforts are successful, Colorado will see more prison overcrowding, higher costs on taxpayers, limited access to life-saving reentry programming, educational, and substance abuse programs, and fewer options for future leaders to address key public safety challenges,” Wilkes told Colorado Politics.

“The incarcerated men and women who most need our help will be hurt the most by these actions, as they already have been in Denver, where the City Council put 500 residents at risk of being sent from their halfway houses back to jail just to make a political point.”

The association includes the GEO Group and CoreCivic, private providers of Colorado incarceration. Private prisons have seen a boom under President Trump, after each gave generously to his campaign in 2016.

What Colorado and other states have is a failure to communicate, private prison defenders contend.

“Bad information leads to bad policy,” she said. "Nowhere in America is that more true than in Colorado. The state is just rife with misinformation on this.”

She called the political standoff “solutions being proposed in search of problems, compounding key challenges in corrections and posing serious consequences for taxpayers.” Wilkes said defenders have to do a better job of educating the public and policymakers.

“For 35 years the private sector contractors have worked with both Republicans and Democrats on issues pertaining to corrections and detention,” she said.

Wilkes said the industry worked with the Obama administration on a prison to house women and their young children together.

Wilkes, however, is a political person, who might give pause to liberal Democrats.

Before taking on the role as spokesperson for a private prison, she worked for a conservative American Rising political action committee, including as its executive director.

America Rising has been on the front lines of defending Trump, and its state chapter in Colorado tracks and criticizes the kinds of Democrats who might drive the current anti-private prison efforts.

“I don’t work for that organization anymore,” Wilkes said. “I’m focused on helping the industry work with leaders of both parties.”

Private vs. public

Herod's position is one held by not just state Democrats, but by many who have observed instances of mismanagement and abuses of private prisons nationwide.

“I believe that there should never be a profit motive in corrections,” she said. “You shouldn’t be profiteering off of people caught up in the criminal justice system that we know is unjust and disproportionately impacts people of color and poor people.”

What “we’ve learned in the past few years is that [private prisons] are losing money. They continually ask the state to decrease their responsibilities in the contracts, which I believe leads to unsafe environments for both the correctional officer and the inmate.” 

Herod said Colorado has the highest recidivism rate in the country and that’s a result of not preparing inmates for transition into society. Colorado is raising the bar, she said.

“We won’t allow them to do as much as they can with as little as they can anymore,” Herod said.

The study will look at the cost of buying existing facilities and helping counties that depend on them for jobs and a tax base.

As to the property tax issue, Herod said she thinks the state should cover those tax losses, estimated at $2.5 million, relatively small compared to the overall prison budget, which exceeded $1 billion for the first time this year.

"We can find that money and incentivize a smooth and just transition for those counties," Herod said.

The state still needs the space for inmates.

Even in “my best world ever, we still would need those beds,” Herod said.

More for less

"There’s a level of scrutiny over a private-run facility that does not exist in the state system.”

That’s according to Sean Foster, facility director at the Cheyenne Mountain facility. He speaks from the perspective not only as the warden of Cheyenne Mountain but from his 30 years with the Colorado Department of Corrections, where he retired as deputy director of prison operations last year and took over at Cheyenne Mountain in December.

Foster pointed to what his private facility offers that the state will have to replicate.

That includes cognitive behavioral training, sex offender management, classes on how to transition from being a father in prison to being a better father outside of it, classes on building resumes, job searches and interview skills, plus financial planning, substance abuse treatment and basic education. Inmates can get certification for HVAC careers and for flaggers for the Department of Transportation.

Other programs lead to college credits. Another course includes classes on communicating “with impossible people,” problem solving, business ethics, time management and how to deal with workplace stress. 

Foster said concerns raised by DOC in December were relatively minor and didn’t endanger inmates or staff.

“You have a human factor, people make mistakes,” he said, saying the issues show up in private and state prisons alike.

He said DOC flagged “tool control,” for example, which has to do with whether kitchen utensils are labeled and organized. One demerit involved a whisk.

A more serious issue was on searches of vehicles from DOC and the sheriff’s office. The staff properly conducted those searches at the loading dock but not at the intake unit. Those who failed to do the searches were “removed” and the issue resolved, Foster said.

As to recidivism, Foster noted that inmates are moved from one prison to another, from private to state-run and back again. Who’s to say, when that inmate reoffends, that the cause is the private prison? It’s impossible to identify, Foster said.

The prison still employs 171 staff. Since the announcement of the closure, DOC has been providing human resources assistance to CMRC employees. They’ve held hiring events that have drawn DOC, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the El Paso County sheriff’s office. GEO also has offered its employees opportunities at any GEO prison, even those around the world, Foster said.

What happens next at the Colorado Springs site is as up-in-the-air as the public policy.

GEO is entertaining offers. Cheyenne Mountain, because of its unique layout and design, could again wind up a medium-level security prison, Foster said.

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