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Colorado Shuts Down $208M Boondoggle; Taxpayers On Hook for Empty Prison

A new Colorado prison built exclusively for solitary confinement was itself abandoned by the state on Nov. 1, 2012, much like the people it was supposed to incarcerate. Now, unless the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) bails out Colorado's Department of Corrections (CDOC), taxpayers will likely foot the bill for $208 million-worth of empty buildings.

The Colorado State Penitentiary II, or Centennial South as it's more commonly known to CDOC officials, opened in 2010 in Cañon City even after protracted fights over its construction. Just two years later, every last CDOC prisoner there– as well as the guards, instructors, medical staff and counselors– were moved out.

A bill to fund Centennial South's construction passed in the Republican-led state legislature in 2003, and was signed by Republican Gov. Bill Owens, bypassing Colorado's TABOR Act, which requires voter approval of projects that increase the state's capital debt. The bill passed only because it included construction of a new medical campus at the University of Colorado. Republicans wanted prisons, Democrats wanted hospitals.

And it was built in spite of a 2005 CDOC report that found Colorado imprisoned three times as many people in solitary confinement as most other state prison systems because of CDOC's "zero-tolerance policy" on prison gangs. CDOC then spun its report and cited "a growing population of violent prisoners" and run-down facilities to lobby for Centennial South.

Thanks to steady opposition, however, from the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) and other prisoner advocates, as well as the appointment of a new CDOC director under Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, state legislators voted in 2012 to close Centennial South and try to sublet its 948 solitary confinement cells.

"The bottom line is we never needed that prison to begin with," CCJRC's Christie Donner told The Denver Post. "So it's lose-lose."

Hickenlooper appointed Tom Clements as CDOC's new director in 2011, replacing Ari Zavaras. Months after his appointment, Clements asked the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) to conduct an independent review of Colorado's solitary confinement system.

The NIC found that about 7% of CDOC prisoners are kept in solitary, or "administrative segregation," compared to a national average of 1% to 2%. The NIC also reported that CDOC prisoners stay in solitary about two years on average, and that even as Colorado's overall prison population has declined, the solitary population has continued growing. Additionally, the proportion of mentally-ill prisoners in solitary has nearly doubled in the past 11 years–from 22% to 40%.

And, most disturbing to Clements, about four in 10 CDOC prisoners are released directly from solitary confinement–where they spend 23 hours a day in their cells–to the streets.

"That was a very compelling factor for us," Clements said.

Since the state legislature voted unanimously to close Centennial South, CDOC has been shopping it. It has zero classrooms, no program space, no outdoor recreation and no chow hall. Just like BOP's supermax facilities. But so far, neither BOP nor any other entity has ponied up.

"It's a really nice facility," Clements said.

Prisoners would prefer to take his word for it.

Source: The Denver Post

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