By Abby Williams
A Democrat-led effort in the push to move Colorado away from the use of private prisons is on its way to become law, although not without controversy.
Supporters cite serious problems with the operations of private prisons in Colorado, while critics voice concern about the rural economic impacts of ending private prisons.
HB 20-1019 entitled “Prison Population Reduction and Management,” passed the House on a party-line vote after long debate on Feb. 12, with a series of delicately-worded amendments. It moved through all three readings at the Senate, with a few additional revisions, and was transferred back to the House on Tuesday, Feb. 25. Its primary sponsors are Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales and Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod.
The bill would open Centennial Correctional Facility in Cañon City, Colo. — a state-run facility currently in limited operation — to up to 650 close custody inmates. Inmates would be moved to Centennial from the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center, a private prison in Colorado Springs operated by GEO Group, Inc.
GEO has been investigated and sued by the ACLU of Colorado for instances of wrongful death, abuse, and neglect. The GEO facility in Colorado Springs is scheduled to close March 7 due to concerns about their ability to adequately house inmates.
The intention to “end private prisons in Colorado by 2025,” included in the initial proposal for the bill, raised concern from representatives of Bent County and Crowley County, where Colorado’s other two private prisons are located.
According to the Commissioner of Bent County, Kim MacDonnell, the closure of the private prison facilities would result in a 54% loss of property tax in Crowley County and 25% in Bent County. This decrease, she noted, would be a considerable portion of the revenue utilized by the counties.
“It’s a big deal to us,” said MacDonnell, “when you recognize if the jobs were to go away, the people would move, the schools would have less students…. people are worried. It trickles down to local business.”
HB 20-1019 includes a study of the impact of ending private prisons in Colorado. The study, to be conducted by the Committee for Local Affairs, will investigate evidence-based strategies for alternatives to private prisons, economic impact analysis, and reduction and recidivism strategies with input from local communities, prosecutors, defense attorneys, advocates, experts, and re-entry providers.
An amendment to the wording of the study changed its intention from how to close private prisons to whether to close private prisons.
According to MacDonnell, this change is notable because the amended wording no longer predicts a predetermined outcome.
“Our current position is that we would support the bill as amended by the Senate, but we could not support and would oppose the bill if the language were reverted,” said MacDonnell. “From my observation over the last few weeks … I believe the legislators are genuinely listening to the concerns of our counties in Southeast Colorado.”
Although amendments were made that pacified qualms of rural constituents, Democrats believe HB 1019 still accomplishes its intended goal.
“Representative Herod believes that no one should profit from the incarceration of human beings,” said Andrew Fish, Rep. Herod’s Chief of Staff. “1019 was written to move Colorado away from that profiteering while acknowledging and studying the potential local economic impacts of closing facilities. The amended version still does that.”
In addition to moving incarcerated peoples from private-owned to state-run facilities, the bill prevents out-of-state inmates from being transferred into Colorado prisons — halting inter-state transactions across private prison companies.
HB 20-1019 was proposed by Gov. Jared Polis and several other leading Democrats. A staff member of Democratic Rep. Tony Exum’s office predicted that there will likely be no complications as the bill passes its final round in the House before being signed by Gov. Polis.