Colorado at a Crossroads

Colorado has a great opportunity to close some of their prisons.  The state’s incarcerated population is decreasing even faster than anticipated, which, at just over 20,000 total incarcerated persons, is down to what officials expected to see in two and a half years.  Serious crime is down by a third since 2002; restructured sentencing is sending fewer and fewer people back to prison for parole violations.  All in all, the state has 7,500 fewer people behind bars than it expected to have in 2013.  Of the 24 state prisons in Colorado, three are run by Corrections Corporation of America, and another by GEO Group. 

However, Corrections Corporation of America has already made its move.  Last March, CCA negotiated a quiet deal with the office of Governor John Hickenlooper to keep their prisons open – a move that Christine Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition says has already cost the state $2 million.  The deal wasn’t hashed out by just anyone; CCA sent in their lobbyist Mike Feeley, a former legislator and “Democratic powerbroker.”  The decision?  A guaranteed 3,300 beds to CCA, at an annual rate of $20,000, until this June.  That’s $66,000,000 total.  Not a bad return on the $200,000 lobbying dollars CCA has invested in Colorado since 2008.

While closing the state’s for-profit private prisons makes sense from a fiscal perspective, it carries even more weight as a human rights issue.  Even the governor’s office has previously acknowledged a need to spend more on health care and rehabilitation for people convicted of crimes; in January, Hickenlooper’s chief of Staff Michelle White announced the governor’s intention to take the savings from closing prisons and invest them in ways to reduce recidivism.  Since a third of those incarcerated in Colorado suffer from mental illness – and two thirds of incarcerated women – White affirmed that they were “working very hard to get our people out of jail who have mental health challenges.” 

For-profit private prisons have notoriously low standards when it comes to health care, and mental health care in particular.  The GEO Group-run South Florida State Hospital is a prime example, where mistreatment and negligence led to multiple deaths.  CCA’s private prisons in Colorado are no stranger to mishandling and lawsuits, either.  A 2004 riot at the Crowley County Correctional Facility resulted in mass injuries and two lawsuits from 199 individuals (the cases are expected to come to trial within the month).  CCA has been the subject of countless other lawsuits in Colorado, including the questionable death of a 26-year old man and another in which 21 female employees successfully pled discrimination, harassment, and sexual abuse at their jobs.

The Prison Utilization Study, an independent study that will make recommendations on prison closures, is scheduled to be issued on June 30, 2013.  The results of the study will be used for informing lawmaking for Colorado’s Department of Corrections during the 2014 legislative session starting next January.  According to CCJRC, little is known about the perspective and background of the private consultant CNA that is conducting the study, and to date, the research process has been very opaque.   It remains to be seen whether the study will reflect a comprehensive analysis of Department of Corrections operations and supports advocates’ assertions that it is time to close private prisons in Colorado.