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Colorado Explores Ending Private Prisons

“I believe that profit should never be a motive in the prison industrv,’’ said Rep. Leslie Herod, the Denver Democrat who co-sponsored the bill.

Support for the legislation was split along party lines, but the bill was approved in the House and Senate. Resistance from Republicans has been based on the economic impact that closing the state’s three private prisons will have on the small towns where they are located.

“I don’t know why there is a bill here to target rural Colorado in such a detrimental way as this bill does,” said Rep. Rod Pelton, whose eastern district houses a correctional facility owned by CoreCivic that had been scheduled to reopen.

Other counties in the southeastern part of the state reported that their local private prisons accounted for 25 percent to 50 percent of their tax base. Herod said the study funded by her bill would take those losses into account.

“There is definitely a movement across the country to close private prisons,” she remarked, “and it would be irresponsible for us not to have plan in place for those communities once they leave.”

Colorado’s for-profit facilities — two operated by CoreCivic and the other by GEO Group, Inc. — account for 20% of the state’s prison population and are located in areas with few other opportunities for employment. California managed to ban the use of private prisons and never has cut ties with corporations that ran halfway houses in the city, but Colorado has no immediate plans for a divorce. As state lawmakers are discovering, the corrections system’s dependence on private prisons is a virulent infection that will require a lengthy and expensive process of recovery.

Colorado’s initial attraction to the for-profit facilities was as a cost-saving measure — $68 a day per prisoner versus $108 at a state prison. The bargain came with hidden costs, though. For prisoners, the companies’ profit motive meant that funds that should have gone to medical rehabilitation or other essential services were instead diverted to shareholders. Polis noted that national studies had found significantly higher rates of recidivism among people who had been incarcerated in private facilities, which is a likely cause of Colorado’s recidivism rate of 50% exceeding the national average by 11 points.

Herod’s legislation allows for a gradual shift away from the private facilities by reopening the state’s Centennial South prison and requiring that for every individual incarcerated there another must be removed from a private prison. The 948 beds at Centennial South were formerly used for solitary confinement but have since been converted into use as a general population intake center.

At full capacity, Centennial South would account for only a fourth of the population currently housed in the state’s private prisons, but many in Colorado see the move as a step in the right direction. Herod admitted that eliminating for-profit institutions would likely require buying back some of the existing corporate facilities, but at least for the moment the political willpower does exist to enact that sort of criminal justice reform. 


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