Polis endorsement

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters in his office at the state Capitol on March 26, 2019.

State officials are reacting to the announcement that GEO will close the Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in southeastern Colorado Springs.

The company announced Tuesday morning it had sent a 60-day notice to the Department of Corrections, announcing the facility -- designed for inmates who are preparing to re-enter society after serving their time -- would shut down on March 7, and that the state had until then to move 642 inmates to state-run prisons.

According to a statement from GEO, the private prison was struggling to recruit and retain staff, after Gov. Jared Polis, in his Nov. 1 budget request, sought funds to shut down the prison and transition the inmates to other state-run facilities. 

Polis, through a spokesman Tuesday, said the department was making preparations for this transition "because the facility is operationally inefficient, has struggled to maintain a stable workforce and consistently fell short of contractual obligation." He called it "unfortunate" that GEO "was quick" to make what the governor called "a financially motivated decision. This is another reason the state should not heavily rely on private prisons which are clearly motivated by profit margins and which, studies have shown, do not help reduce recidivism." 

However, the Department of Corrections was recently asked to prove whether there was a difference in outcomes, including recidivism, between private and state-run prisons. They told the Joint Budget Committee on Dec. 2 that they did not have any empirical data or statistics that showed that moving offenders from a private prison to a public one would improve outcomes.

Polis added that "as proposed in his budget, the governor and lawmakers believe that opening the newly built, but never used, state facility (Centennial South) provides an opportunity to improve re-entry services throughout the prison system, including education, workforce development and behavioral health. The governor looks forward to working with the Legislature to ensure there is a smooth transition.”

Centennial South, also known as Colorado State Penitentiary II (CSP II), in Fremont County, opened in 2010 but shuttered two years later as the state moved away from housing inmates in 23-hour-per-day solitary confinement prisons. The prison, as built, lacked a recreation yard or other common areas, such as cafeterias, which would be necessary for medium-security inmates, such as those at Cheyenne Mountain.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling has seen first-hand what closing a private prison does to a community. The Kit Carson prison in Burlington, a private facility, was shut down in 2016 and hit the local economy hard. 

"This is so frustrating," Sonnenberg told Colorado Politics. "The governor and a number of legislators have been on a mission to shut down private prisons in Colorado," and set up committees in which to validate this mission. "This is just an example of them not being patient enough to look at the facts first."

Rural communities have been devastated when administrations, both current and in the past, have decided to undo the economy that the Department of Corrections asked them to build. "To now tell these communities that 'we no longer need you' is not only irresponsible, it just plain isn't right."

The first stop for moving those inmates is money, and that's where the Joint Budget Committee comes in. State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, said Tuesday that they would probably have to move faster on a supplemental appropriations for the Department of Corrections and revising it "to fully accommodate the scale of the problem."

While the state prison bed vacancy rate was somewhere around 1% last year, or about 140 beds, she said due to some progress on that issue it could be as high as 5%, or about 700 beds, scattered throughout the 14,000-bed system. But not all of them are likely to be medium security beds, which is how the inmates at Cheyenne Mountain are classified. "It may take some creative juggling to find placements for 650 level 3 (medium security) prisoners," Zenzinger said. 

"We will have to sit down rather quickly and figure out the full scope of the problem," she added. 

As to GEO's decision, Zenzinger said it "was certainly provoked by the governor's comments and request, but it's not the governor's decision to make. It's the JBC's decision to make. ...This makes it a little difficult because it forces our hand" before the JBC had a chance to fully vet the problem.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, is not all that unhappy about the situation. "We've been working on this issue for a long time," she noted. A bill in the 2019 session started the process for reopening CSP II, although currently it's only allowed for emergency situations. The "private prison industry is getting out of prisons," she said. "Cities and states are being very clear" that there should not be a profit motive for prisons. She called GEO's decision "irresponsible."

Herod believes there is enough capacity in the system to accommodate the rapid transition of inmates from Cheyenne Mountain to state prisons. She applauds the governor and the head of corrections, Dean Williams, for respecting the will of the General Assembly, to ensure prison reform is happening and that there is a plan in place. The state will move forward with resources, such as education and mental health support, to ensure inmates are ready to transition back into society. "We have one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. This closure continues us on path" to get out of the private prison business.

Herod said a bill advanced by an interim committee to fully open CSP II will be introduced on day one of the session, and she will push for that bill to move quickly through the Legislature. "There will be some strain ... but we will be okay. This is not catastrophic and we have the capacity in the system."

But disdain for private prisons will "directly hurt those who are getting the services from those prisons," said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute. With all the spending on K-12 and reinsurance, the costs of this transition is money the state doesn't have, he said. "What's more important? Being mean to private prisons or being mean to the inmates who are about to be released?"

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