Prison interior. Jail cells, dark background.

The issue of prisons — both state and private — has become perhaps the most contentious and far-reaching issue through the first month of the General Assembly.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the House on Wednesday took the Department of Corrections out to the woodshed, with Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Adams County accusing the prison system of "thumbing its nose" at the authority of the General Assembly.

Lawmakers were entangled over a supplemental funding bill for DOC to cover expenses not paid for in the current budget. DOC is seeking $1.1 million for its deferred maintenance fund.

Why it needs that money is irritating lawmakers, asked to cover the additional costly bills for incarceration.

According to Benavidez and Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, DOC had asked for that $1.1 million in 2019, to pay for a recreation yard at Centennial South, which had none since it had been built to house inmates placed into solitary confinement. 

The Joint Budget Committee last year turned down that request because DOC lacked the authority to do that, according to Benavidez and Melton. 

DOC did it anyway, by tapping into its deferred maintenance fund, and then came back to the JBC last month to ask for the money to replenish the fund.

Benavidez attached an amendment to the supplemental legislation, House Bill 1243, to strip that money out of the department's budget.  

She told Colorado Politics that the amendment was intended to indicate to the JBC the House's "disapproval of their action" to approve that request.

Melton told the House that when the department "starts ignoring the 65 of us and go to the six across the street (the JBC), we’re going to have a problem. It's time to say 'enough' to the department. If you spend money you didn't have, you'll have to do without."

Despite the JBC's insistence that the money would prevent dangerous situations and provide much-needed repairs, the amendment passed with 38 votes, including from 18 Democrats. 

It didn't start or stop there. (Note: Colorado Politics takes a deep dive into the numbers and questions about reform in the upcoming print magazine for our subscribers.)

The policy and spending questions didn't start or stop this week, however.

The dustup started on Jan. 7, the day before the session began, when GEO Group announced it would close its Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in 60 days, forcing the DOC to find a home for more than 600 medium-security inmates, beds the agency said it didn't have. 

Questions continued through a hearing on Jan. 29 on House Bill 1019, which would allow DOC to reopen its Centennial South prison in Fremont County, closed since 2012, for up to 650 closed custody (the highest level of security) inmates. The bill also requires DOC to conduct a study on how to close the state's remaining two private prisons, in Bent and Crowley counties, which both rely heavily on property and sales taxes from those prisons. 

HB 1019 passed on a party-line 39-22 vote Thursday. The supplemental for DOC, HB 1243, was approved on a 50-11 vote. Both still must pass in the Senate, as well.

County commissioners from Bent and Crowley told Colorado Politics that closing those prisons would bankrupt both counties. Crowley derives 54% of its property taxes from the Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs, operated by CoreCivic. The Bent County Correctional Facility, also operated by CoreCivic and located in Las Animas, brings in 25% of Bent County's property taxes. The two facilities house more than 3,000 inmates. 

Also on Wednesday evening and again on Thursday morning, rural lawmakers fought hard against House Bill 1019, especially the study that would allow DOC to figure out how to close the two private prisons. But those lawmakers won an important concession from bill sponsor Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver on Wednesday night, who agreed to an amendment posed by the Republicans to change the study from "how" to close prisons to "whether" to close prisons. 

Another amendment to HB 1019, attached by the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 29, would change the approval process when another state wants to send inmates to private prisons in Colorado. 

The state of Idaho wants to transfer as many as 1,200 inmates to the Kit Carson Correctional Facility in Burlington, which closed in 2016. That devastated the Burlington economy, said Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells. Reopening Kit Carson would result in 300 jobs, some paying up to $50,000 a year. And it would provide property taxes to Kit Carson County, which lost $1 million when the facility closed. 

On Thursday, lawmakers went at it again over HB 1019. "This is an attack on rural Colorado," Pelton said. "It's not too late to stop the damage" this would cause to rural Colorado. 

Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, dismissed Democrats' basic premise: ending private prisons.

"We will never close all our private prisons," he said, explaining, "We don't have the money for it."

Herod fought back. 

"It's a study," she said. "There are economic considerations when closing a prison. She said the bill's study portion has always said it would look at the economic impacts of closing a private prison. "It's our responsibility to have the data in front of us to weigh all our options, and make decisions based on that."

Herod said she understood the mistrust of government and the fear this is raising in rural communities. "I'm a woman of my word," she said, and when asked to change the study based on concerns by the county commissioners, she did it.

But "when we talk about rural Colorado, I take offense that this is a war on rural areas.... When we talk about money over people's lives, we should be ashamed of ourselves. We should also be ashamed if we say we will leave these people behind" in rural communities.

"We must go in the direction of compassion and rehabilitation, and we should put that above profit at all times," Herod continued. She said she would continue not only to fight to close private prisons, but to decrease the overall prison population, and that could mean buying back private prisons and converting them to state-run facilities.

"I stand with rural Colorado," Herod said. "I stand with black and brown and low-income communities devastated by mass incarceration. ... Let's put compassion back into the system."

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