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The chambers of Colorado House at the Capitol. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The number of inmates in Colorado is growing, and the total spent annually on corrections is approaching $1 billion for the first time.

The latest data suggest the trendlines are projected to only continue despite bipartisan efforts at the Capitol a year ago to cut costs and reduce the prison population to boost parole and increase community release and supervision programs.

To say state lawmakers are frustrated is an understatement. Led by Democrats, House lawmakers blasted the Colorado Department of Corrections on Thursday, accusing officials of ignoring the law. To emphasize the point, the chamber voted unanimously to cut $1.1 million from a corrections budget bill.

“They cannot thumb their nose at us and say our decisions don’t matter,” said Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a top Democrat from Adams County.

The public rebuke — aimed more at former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration than his successor, Gov. Jared Polis — is an opening salvo in a larger debate about the criminal justice system that will include efforts to release more offenders and reduce the use of private prisons.

For the next year budget year, which begins July 1, the corrections department is eyeing a $970 million budget request that includes additional money to house a growing inmate population and reopen a former solitary confinement prison shuttered in 2012.

The proposal to revive Centennial Correctional Facility-South in Cañon City is one of the most controversial items in the criminal justice budget. The Hickenlooper administration moved to eliminate the practice of administrative segregation, and lawmakers passed a law to close it.

The General Assembly rejected reopening the prison three times in the 2018 legislative session, but Polis sees the facility as integral to his proposed criminal justice reforms, which include other efforts to look at alternatives to incarceration.

“Our goal is reducing recidivism, which leads to reductions in the incarceration rate, (and) phasing out private prisons,” Polis said in an interview.

A budget bill sparks backlash against corrections agency

The conversation started Thursday at an unusual moment — the passage of the annual supplemental budget package that drew little notice to date. The 18 budget bills increase spending from the prior two fiscal years by $309 million, or about 1 percent. The state Senate overwhelmingly approved all the budget bills last week.

The state Department of Corrections wanted $3.2 million more for the current budget year with $2.1 million set aside for officer overtime costs. But lawmakers balked at the additional $1.1 million set aside for facility improvements at the former solitary confinement prison, also known as a Colorado State Penitentiary II.

A spokeswoman for Dean Williams, the new executive director of the Department of Corrections, said he would not respond to questions about the budget request.

The initial voice vote to reject the money for facility improvements came despite the fact the Joint Budget Committee approved the spending in September and the agency already used it for cell modifications and the addition of recreation yards.

“There are so many aspects to look at when it comes to criminal justice reform, but I didn’t feel this was the right venue for that,” said Rep. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat and budget writer who voiced support for the original spending bill.

Debate centers on whether to reopen prison

The maintenance work is designed to upgrade the prison to make it available for use, reversing the state’s years-long plan to sell the facility after closing it.

Hickenlooper proposed reopening the prison to address capacity issues as criminal case filings continue to increase and thousands are stuck in a backlog at the parole board. The state’s prison population is projected to exceed 21,000 by June 2021.

In the current budget, the state counts 14,505 beds at state corrections facilities; 3,371 at private prisons; and 669 jail beds. The benchmark vacancy rate is 2 percent, but it sat at less than 1 percent, or 93 beds, at the end of 2018. A recent governor’s office report found that as many as 37 people go to prison each month, but it fluctuated as high as 131 new offenders at one point.

But instead of opening a new prison to house the additional inmates, state lawmakers want the corrections department to act on legislation approved in 2018 to give the agency more leeway in releasing inmates to alternative programs, such as community supervision, when vacancy is an issue.

“We have been working on this issue for years now, looking at the ballooning prison budget,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who led recent efforts to reduce the prison population. “We have put in measures and mechanisms so they don’t actually have to increase the capacity, but they can move folks around, they can do presumptive parole. … We need to make sure that people are moved through the system in a way that is safe and appropriate, and we are not doing that as quickly as possible.”

Polis takes new approach to criminal justice reforms

The criticism is largely aimed at the prior administration, and Herod likes the Polis team’s new approach.

The governor is pushing for efforts to address the parole backlog and other efforts to reduce recidivism. “We are looking at building capacity on programs that transition inmates successfully back to the workforce and successfully reintegrate them,” Polis said in an interview Thursday, adding that the measures would “drive down recidivism rates and incarceration rates.”

Still, Polis wants to spend millions to reopen Centennial South, just like Hickenlooper, but for different reasons.

Polis is proposing to convert the maximum-security prison to a place for inmate reentry programs, rather than to add new prison beds to the system. Right now, those programs are done at an inmate intake facility in Denver that Polis wants to turn into a long-term care and mental health location.

Polis said his plan shows the administration’s focus on rehabilitation and would allow for the elimination of 824 private prison beds by June 2022.

The governor said a private prison “adds an intermediary who makes a profit from our criminal justice system.”

“We want incentives to be aligned around reducing recidivism and successful integration to the workforce,” he told The Colorado Sun. “Having stakeholders whose profit is derived from the opposite incentive system … means that their goals are not always aligned with the goals of the state.”

Polis’ plan needs legislative approval this session, but lawmakers who felt stymied on the issue in recent years are hoping to make progress now.

“I have sensed a new direction with this administration,” Herod said. “I do like the budget the governor has proposed, but the devil is in the details there.”

Updated 8 a.m. Feb. 15, 2019: The story was updated to clarify and add more details about Gov. Jared Polis’ plan to reopen Centennial Correctional Facility-South in Cañon City.


John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.