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Colorado Pays for Unneeded Private Prison Beds to Subsidize Local Jobs

by John E. Dannenberg

Even amid a declining prison population, Colorado is paying million of dollars to private prison contractors for unneeded cells in order to protect the economic base of small, rural communities that have become dependent on the jobs that for-profit prisons provide.

With Colorado’s prison population in decline since 2009, five prisons, both public and private, already have closed in the state, including the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility. [See related article on page 43 of this issue]. It is estimated that in the near future, two to ten more closures could follow. After a study is concluded in June 2013, recommendations will be made as to which facilities will be shuttered.

Colorado currently has 20 state-owned prisons with 1,000 empty beds – a number that is rising by around 100 more vacancies each month. Another four prisons are privately-owned, including three Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) facilities and one GEO Group prison that house minimum-to-medium-security prisoners from Colorado and other jurisdictions.

Private prisons originally were used by the state as an “overflow” measure. In 2012, Colorado contracted with CCA to house 3,300 prisoners, at a cost of about $20,000 each, for the fiscal year that ends June 2013. CCA reported that the agreement was part of its “flexibility to manage [the] changing needs” of the state. However, the main benefit that Colorado politicians sought to preserve was the 600 jobs in the rural communities of Olney Springs, Burlington and Las Animas, where CCA prisons are located.

When responding to several Open Records Act requests, Governor John Hickenlooper’s office did not produce a single record related to details of how the 3,300-bed contract with CCA was reached. The Governor’s office referred all questions to the legislature, notwithstanding that the Governor’s own office calendars indicated his staff had met with CCA executives and their Colorado lobbyist, Mike Feeley, on the morning of March 28, 2012.

That same day, in the afternoon, the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee took up CCA’s threat to close its Kit Carson Correctional Center if the company didn’t receive help – i.e., more money from the state. Without approximately $10-$15 million, CCA complained it could not keep all of its facilities operational; the company had already shut down its 752-bed Huerfano County Correctional Center in Walsenburg in 2010 due to lack of prisoners. Feeley remarked that “CCA really feels we’re in a partnership with the state,” when commenting on the contract negotiations. The legislature subsequently approved the payments to CCA.

The reality, however, is that prison closures are unavoidable. Colorado’s prison population is dropping faster than projected, meaning that its contract with CCA is costing more than expected. The state’s prison population, which was projected to decrease by between 160 and 1,256 prisoners by mid-2013, had already fallen by 1,700 as of February 2013.

The slide in the number of state prisoners reflects a one-third drop in Colorado’s crime rate over the past decade. Part of the reduction also resulted from the legislature changing the state’s sentencing structure, including granting prisoners more good time credits. In light of this trend, CCA’s future prospects in Colorado do not look encouraging unless the state decides to continue using privately-operated prisons as a means of maintaining the existing jobs those facilities provide.

“We can find no aspect of incarceration, a necessary evil, that serves as legitimate economic development,” stated a March 12, 2013 editorial in the Colorado Springs Gazette. “Some individuals must lead part or all of life behind bars and that may never change. While incarcerated, a person lives as a liability to the public. A person in prison costs an economy more wealth than a prisoner can possibly produce. If prisons benefit the economy, we should build more of them immediately. They do not.”

Sources: Colorado Public News,,

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