By Emma Gorsuch
In last week’s article, “A Push to End the Use of Private Prisons in Colorado,” Abby Williams identified the main controversies surrounding HB 20-1019, a bill entitled “Prison Population Reduction and Management.” Shortly after her article, the bill, which originated in the House and underwent three readings in the Senate, re-passed in the House on Feb. 27. The final language of the bill remains ambiguous on the future of Colorado’s relationship with private prisons, leaving open an ongoing debate about the benefits and moral hazards of prison privatization.
The bill in its initial form outlined a plan to end the use of private prisons in Colorado by 2025. After amendments added in the Senate, the bill as passed will not oblige the state to end private contracts, but instead will fund a study investigating the impact of ending private prisons in Colorado. As of March 7, there are two private prisons operating in the state: Crowley County Correctional Facility and Brent County Correctional Facility. Combined, the two house over 3,000 medium security prisoners, around a fifth of the total inmates in Colorado according to The Gazette. Even with the addition of the Centennial Correctional Facility, ending contracts with these two private prisons would dramatically increase the issue of overcrowding that is already prominent across the nation.
Colorado is already suffering from overcrowding due to the slow process of paroling prisoners and high recidivism rates in the state. Colorado has failed to meet the Department of Corrections recommended vacancy rates for over a year. Overcrowding has led to abuse, ignored medical harms, and violence due to lack of personnel and resources. In Thompson v. Lengerich, the Tenth Circuit found that Larry Thomson, an inmate at Buena Vista Correctional Facility, a state-run facility in Colorado, faced eighth amendment violations due to overcrowding. Thompson claimed that the prison was understaffed and that inmates spent more time in their cells as a result. When they were let out, the lack of supervision created a more violent environment. Buffie McFadyen, a former state lawmaker and current administrator for the non-profit Corrections USA, discusses the widespread effects of overcrowding in Colorado: “Assaults are up in the department of corrections [and] inmate homicides are up.”
Private prisons have assisted in decreasing the population in public prisons by providing additional housing. Construction for private prisons takes half the time of their public counterparts, allowing them to adapt more quickly to an influx in the prison population. In addition, the public bears minimal risk for the cost of construction if the private prison were to fail compared to the high burden if a state-run facility were built. Colorado facilities have also taken on a unique role in alleviating the massive overcrowding issues seen in Idaho by accepting out-of-state inmates, a practice that will be limited by HB 20-1019. In addition to combating immediate strains of overcrowding, private prisons reduce recidivism rates, thereby combating future overcrowding. The Bureau of Justice Assistance found private prisons reduce recidivism by an average of 7%. A metadata study conducted by the Heartland Institute found that, on balance, private prisons performed better than their public counterparts where performance measured recidivism and rehabilitation plans.
Private prisons have also reduced the economic burden on taxpayers while creating revenue for low-income counties. As stated by the Harvard Law Review, “private prisons clearly (have) positive direct cost savings” through cheaper maintenance and construction while also indirectly benefiting the economy by pushing the public system to compete with their more efficient methods. On average, private prisons save $13 to $15 million, according to research conducted by Vanderbilt University professors Cohen and Blumstein and Oxford’s Suman Seth. Colorado specifically pays $108 per day for a prisoner in the public system, almost 40% more than in private facilities, according to Department of Corrections figures.
Not only does this reduction allow the state to focus their resources elsewhere, but local communities actually benefit from having private prisons. Crowley and Bent, two of Colorado’s poorest counties, both rely heavily on the property taxes of private prisons to fund needs in their local community, as Williams discussed in her piece. Bent County would lose $2.5 million in property taxes, not to mention losses in sales tax. In addition, the prisons employ a vast percentage of the population in each area. Each county would lose approximately 500 jobs, the equivalent of the Denver area losing 28,000 jobs, relative to its population.
One major concern is that decreased costs cause private prisons to cut corners, harming the well-being of inmates. However, private prisons are subject to extensive oversight from the Colorado Department of Corrections and are regulated through their contracts with the state, causing them to meet higher standards than state-run facilities. The American Correctional Association, an independent organization that determines if a facility meets nationally accepted standards, has only found 10% of public prisons qualify for accreditation compared to the 45% of private prisons which meet ACA standards. Sean Foster, who spent 30 years with the Colorado Department of Corrections and is now interim executive director at the Cheyenne Mountain facility, emphasizes that “there’s a level of scrutiny over a private-run facility that does not exist in the state system.”
Often, cost cuts are not the result of lower standards, but heightened innovation. For example, the practice of storing food became antiquated as transportation improved, but state-run facilities continued to maintain large food warehouses for their prisons. When private prisons adapted, shifting to a program of daily food delivery, they were able to cut costs substantially and state prisons later followed suit. Increased efficiency, not lower quality, is what ought to drive lower costs in private prisons.
Removing private prisons in Colorado would result in higher costs and lower standards of care as the overcrowding crisis continues unabated. Though not perfect, private prisons are essential to maintaining a functioning prison system in light of the overcrowding challenges faced in our state. In addition, private prisons benefit local communities and raises the overall efficacy of the prison system. As the debate over private prisons continues, it is worth examining the role that these institutes play in our state, and what it would mean to lose them.