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Colorado Bailing Out Private Prison Company on Taxpayers’ Dime

by Jo Ellen Nott 

On January 21, 2022, Colorado lawmakers advanced plans to funnel $5.41 million in additional funds over the next two years to address staffing crises at the state’s only two private prisons, both operated for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) by private prison giant CoreCivic, whose revenues in 2021 reached $1.89 billion.

The two prisons in rural southeastern Colorado have been grappling with sky-high staff turnover rates: 107% at the Bent County Correctional Facility and 126% at the Crowley County Correctional Facility. The scratch-one’s-head moment: Even after the increase, DOC will still manage to pay its own staff $2 per hour more than CoreCivic’s staff earns at the prisons, yet the state agency maintains a significantly higher rate of employee retention, 77% to CoreCivic’s (less than) 0%.

“[M] ore people are starting and quitting than are employed there,” explained a memo to lawmakers on the state Joint Budget Committee (JBC) considering the request.

Apparently throwing money at the problem is what JBC wants to do, though, sending the request to the full General Assembly with a 5-0 vote. Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver), a vocal opponent of private prisons in the state, was excused. The measure is expected to come up for a final vote this spring.

The proposal hikes the per diem DOC pays CoreCivic to $63.32 for each prisoner in the facilities, which together hold about 25% of the state’s medium-security prison beds.

Republican Sen. Bob Rankin, a JBC member, asked for more information about the training CoreCivic is providing, declaring, “If I had a turn-over rate like that, I would really be concerned about the quality and training of the individuals that I hire.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, tax revenue from the two private prisons is crucial in keeping afloat the rural communities where they are located. Crowley County collects 44% of its property taxes from the prison there, as well as 42% of school district taxes. In Bent County, CoreCivic’s share was 18% of the county’s property taxes and 25% of school district taxes.

In addition to increased state funding, federal COVID-19 relief funds from the CARES Act—to the tune of $1.3 million—are being used to pay retention bonuses to CoreCivic employees at the two private prisons. With a zero percent retention rate at those facilities, one can only hope the millions of dollars that CoreCivic will receive to train and retain prison guards will move the needle off zero over the next two years.

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