Prison Cells

Lawmakers worked late into the evening Wednesday to craft a delicately-worded compromise on a bill that could provide a lifeline for the state's last two remaining private prisons. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee pulled it off, passing four amendments to House Bill 1019 and the bill itself, unanimously. It now heads to Senate Appropriations.

The amendments have been in the works for several days, but the breakthrough took place Wednesday night after a nearly two-hour negotiating session mid-hearing. 

One major change affects a study on the impacts of closing private prisons on rural counties, an amendment put that study into the hands of the Department of Local Affairs instead of the Department of Corrections. 

The study has been the subject of controversy for months. In the bill’s original language, the study would look at how to close private prisons, the economic impact on the two rural counties — Bent and Crowley — where the state’s last two private prisons are located, and what it would cost the state to buy the prisons. In the House, Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, agreed to an amendment that said the state would look at "whether" to close private prisons, not "how" to close them. 

But that’s in conflict with the position of Gov. Jared Polis. During Wednesday’s hearing, DOC lobbyist Aaron Greco said that the state’s goal is to reduce the use of private prisons, and Herod has said her goal is to “move in a direction where we will not rely on private prisons" through a change from private to state management. That message said to residents of the two counties that the study’s outcome has already been predetermined.

As amended by the House, the bill said DOC would study the impact on ending the use of private prisons, but the Senate Judiciary Committee changed that to ask DOLA to look at “future prison bed needs in Colorado.” It also stripped out language that said the study would look at “evidence-based strategies to stop using private prisons,” substituting language on “safely reducing prison populations, including moving individuals into alternative facilities or programs.”

According to the amendment, the bill also would set up an advisory committee that would consult with the contractor DOLA hires to do the study. That committee would include at least three representatives of local governments from the impacted counties. In addition, before the study is completed, DOLA would hold public hearings in those counties and incorporate public testimony into the final report.

Testimony from Bent, Crowley counties

On Wednesday, 32 residents of the affected counties boarded a bus to Denver for a four-hour ride to plead for their county's survival with the committee.

One of the major issues for county commissioners and school superintendents is property tax revenue. Crowley County, home to the Crowley County Correctional Facility, derives 54% of its property tax revenue from the CoreCivic-run prison. In Bent County, it’s 25%. Commissioners from both counties have said the counties would go bankrupt if the prisons closed, even if they were even transitioned to state-run facilities. 

But that’s not the only loss those communities would face. The committee heard from high school students from LaJunta whose parents work at those prisons, and from school district officials from Bent and Crowley who pointed out that losing the prisons means losing students.

Elsie Goines, superintendent of the Las Animas School District in Bent County, said her district has 474 students and 50 are tied to the CoreCivic-owned Bent County Correctional Facility. 

If the prison closes and the families move away, which is what happened when the state closed the nearby Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in 2010, it means substantial hits to their budget, including losing teachers and vocational programming. Fifty students is $800,000, between assessed valuation and enrollment dollars, she said. “People will leave when they don’t have jobs, and they take their children with them,” Goines said.

“We are full of grit and fight for survival,” said Scott Cuckow, superintendent of the Bent County School District. “But we always seem to be under the dark cloud of the legislature. I’m tired of that dark cloud that the prisons may close, and there goes the wonderful families and people that make southeastern Colorado special.”

Several witnesses tried to show how large the impact would be by comparing it to Denver. Losing 241 jobs in Bent County would be like losing 85,000 jobs in metro Denver, said Sammie George of the Bent County Development Foundation.

Crowley County Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh pointed out that if the state takes over the two private prisons, which he said houses inmates at a lower cost, taxpayers will shell out an additional $49 million per year to cover higher state employer salaries and benefits. “This could be going to schools, health care or roads. This is our money, not yours.”

But it was the testimony of the high school students from LaJunta that impressed committee members most, including committee Chair Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, who commented that the students did a good job of showing how closures would impact their futures. 

“The state gave us this opportunity to better ourselves,” said Sophie Klob of LaJunta High School, whose mother and grandparents work at the prisons. “They gave us the heart of the community. Jobs, businesses and municipalities rely on this. To have it ripped away is unfair… . How will this affect the future of my generation?” She said it was a future in which job opportunities just don’t exist, and would create yet another downward spiral that the region is just now starting to get out of.

The Bent and Crowley residents found something of an ally in bill sponsor Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, who agreed to the amendments. She pointed out that her family comes from Walsenburg, home to the now-closed Huerfano County Correctional Facility.

Gonzales said that when it closed in 2010, 188 people lost their jobs, and the community has never recovered from it. “Part of my interest in this study is to lay out the facts” around what happens to rural communities when a prison closes, she told the witnesses.

Inmates from other states

Another amendment changed one put on the bill in House Judiciary on Jan. 28, which would affect whether the state of Idaho could send up to 1,200 inmates to the CoreCivic-owned Kit Carson Correctional Facility in Burlington, which closed in 2016. 

The bill as amended by the House granted the governor the power to make the call on whether to allow those inmates to come to Colorado in the event of exigent, or emergency, situation.

Previously the statute said the head of DOC could make that approval, and that it could not be “unreasonably withheld.” DOC has approved out-of-state inmate placements in Colorado private prisons for years, including at Kit Carson. The House version took out the “unreasonably withheld” language; the Senate Judiciary Committee’s version put it back in. 

The compromise, which involved the governor’s office, DOC, representatives from CoreCivic and the city of Burlington, added additional criteria that the DOC executive director could use to make the determination on whether to allow the inmates to come to Colorado. That includes staffing levels, inmate custody levels, and that the prison would not commingle prisoners from multiple states. That led to a riot at Crowley County in 2004, according to Christy Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

“We have a long and sordid history” of importing people into private prisons, Donner told the committee. “It’s a horrible practice for human beings to be treated as commodities.”

Donner told the committee that Idaho would send maximum security inmates, but that isn’t borne out by the contract, according to Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, who said it mentions only medium-security inmates. Donner admitted she hadn’t seen the contract and was relying on reports from Idaho newspapers. “In a perfect world we would ban this practice,” she said.

Tristan Gorman of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, which backed the bill’s original version, said she understands what the rural counties are facing, with the loss of jobs and tax revenue.

“That is exactly what mass incarceration does, and that’s why reducing mass incarceration and managing prison populations is so important,” she said.

It should be exclusively a government function, she said, instead of creating, in her words, a “prison industrial complex."

"There should never be a private corporation with a for-profit motive that is in charge of incarcerating people in Colorado.”

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