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. 

A bill that will allow the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to fully re-open two towers at the Centennial South prison in Fremont County has received its final votes and is now headed to the governor.

House Bill 1019 started out as a study on how to close the state's private prisons, granting authority to DOC to open up 650 beds at Centennial South and modifying state law on the penalties for escape.

The bill was the work of a 2019 interim committee on prison population management.

But the day before the 2020 session started, the state was hit with the news that the privately-owned Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center in southeast Colorado Springs would close on March 7, under a 60-day notice provided by the facility's owners, the GEO Group.

The closure was related to comments by Democratic lawmakers and a request by Gov. Jared Polis in his 2020-21 budget submission to close the facility, which has been run by GEO since 2017.

It meant the state had 60 days to move the facility's 642 inmates, beds that DOC said it didn't have. The department had permission to place up to 126 inmates at Centennial South under emergency conditions, but that authority was due to expire on June 30. 

That added pressure on lawmakers to pass the bill as quickly as possible, to give DOC the authority to take high-security prisons from other state-run prisons and transfer them to Centennial South, which was originally built as a close-custody solitary confinement prison. That would eventually free up beds for the medium-security inmates coming out of Cheyenne Mountain. 

A second wrinkle that got added to HB 1019: a request by the state of Idaho to allow them to ship up to 1,200 inmates to the privately-owned Kit Carson Correctional Facility in Burlington, which has been closed since 2016. Idaho has housed inmates at Kit Carson in the past, and state law says that permission to move out-of-state inmates to Colorado "cannot be unreasonably withheld." 

Democratic lawmakers, including HB 1019 sponsor Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, didn't take too kindly to that idea. Herod stated she'd kill the deal if she could, and the permission to move those inmates was modified in HB 1019 to allow the governor, in consultation with the DOC Executive Director, to make the call. The "unreasonably withheld" language in the statute also was targeted for deleting in the bill.

County commissioners in Bent and Crowley counties, where the last two privately-owned prisons that hold more than 3,000 Colorado inmates are located, protested that closing those prisons would devastate their economies. Crowley receives 54% of its property taxes from the CoreCivic prison in Olney Springs; Bent County receives 25% of its property taxes from the CoreCIvic-owned prison in Las Animas. School superintendents from those counties also warned that closing the prisons would cause residents with some of the area's highest-paying jobs to move away, putting the schools into dire financial circumstances.

When the bill got to the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, big changes began to take place. The committee and the bill's Senate sponsor, Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, revamped the study to place it into the hands of the Department of Local Affairs, and that it would look at the economic impact of closing private prisons. 

The permission to ship out-of-state inmates also was changed, putting back in the "unreasonably withheld" language but adding more criteria for evaluating the contract, such as consideration of the financial impact to the state for moving those inmates to Colorado. 

It wasn't enough, however, to win the support of Republicans in whose districts those prisons are located. The final Senate vote was 25-10, including "no" votes from Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, whose district includes Kit Carson, and Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, whose district includes Bent and Crowley counties.

During the Senate's second reading debate, Sonnenberg laid the blame for the crisis from the closure of Cheyenne Mountain squarely onto the governor and Democratic lawmakers. He called it a "man-made crisis," and said their actions intended to "force us into a box so that we have to spend taxpayers dollars, taking away from education and highways, to put toward [state] prisons that are not as efficient as private prisons.”

On Thursday, Herod signed off on the Senate amendments and asked the House to agree to those changes.

The House approved the changes unanimously and repassed the bill on a largely party-line 41-23 vote. The governor now has ten days to take action on the bill. 

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