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The Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center in Colorado Springs. (Provided by GEO Group)
The Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center in Colorado Springs. (Provided by GEO Group)

After months of saying it wanted to close a private prison in Colorado Springs, the Polis administration got the surprise news on Tuesday that GEO Group will be shuttering the facility on its own, leaving hundreds of inmates and employees in limbo. 

GEO announced it will close the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center in just 60 days. 

The move likely will cause jail backlogs, parole releases and prison crowding, said Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams, adding that the situation is not ideal and noting a list of “undesirable consequences.”

“I knew that this certainly was going to be a possibility,” Williams told The Colorado Sun, explaining that his agency has been planning for the outcome. “We knew that this could possibly turn south. I thought we were on track, however, that we would continue to work this situation out.”

Williams said his agency had been working with GEO Group for months to address issues at the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center around staffing and programs offered to inmates there. He had hoped that the facility would stay open through at least June so the state could find a solution for its inmate population. 

But on Thursday, Williams said, CDOC was surprised by the announcement that GEO would be closing the facility on March 7. He says the state didn’t get a heads up before the news broke.

“I would have welcomed that phone call in a heartbeat because we have been maintaining what I thought was cooperative discussions,” Williams said. “You’d have to ask them, but I’m sure it was a corporate decision. That’s the deal that you make with a private prison corporation. You know that if it starts to go south, you don’t really have long-term leverage to keep a prison going that they are operating.” 

Williams said that the Department of Corrections was “confident” that GEO was losing money each month on the facility.

Dean Williams, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The GEO Group blamed Gov. Jared Polis’ administration for the closure. It said in a written statement that since Polis unveiled his 2020-21 fiscal year budget, which called for the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center to be closed, it has “experienced challenges in retaining and recruiting staff.”

“Given these circumstances, and in the interest of our staff and those entrusted to our care, we have informed the Department of Corrections (DOC) that we will conclude our services at CMRC in 60 days,” GEO Group said, adding that it will help develop a transition plan with state prison officials. “The state has made its intentions clear; that it wants to manage this population within its own facilities, and we will work with them toward that end.“

GEO Group, a Florida-based company that operates private prisons across the country, denied that financial considerations were at play in its decision to close the facility. It’s contract with the state was set to expire in June.

GEO also runs an immigration detention center in Aurora that has come under intense criticism for its treatment of inmates. 

The GEO immigration detention center in Aurora on Monday, July 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Polis administration and Democratic state lawmakers have been pushing to end Colorado’s use of private prisons, targeting the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center for closure, specifically, because of what they say are a host of problems. The governor’s budget called for money to reopen a section of an unused state prison called Centennial South, also known as Colorado State Penitentiary II, and move the state’s inmate population around to accommodate those currently being housed at the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center.

The Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center is a prison that houses inmates nearing release where they can access programs aimed at helping them return to society, including substance abuse education.

In fact, the legislature is slated to consider a bill in the upcoming lawmaking term, which begins Wednesday, to address the future of the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center. However, some have expressed concerns about the cost, expected to be at least $10 million in its first year, and what other programs will take a hit because of the closure. 

Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, was noncommittal on the funds on Tuesday. “We’ll see. That’s a conversation for the Capital Development Committee, the Joint Budget Committee and for them to have with all of us as a legislature about whether or not that money should be appropriated.” 

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who is championing the legislation around reopening a larger swath of Centennial South, said she’s confident it will be passed. “While GEO is making a very irresponsible move, we are ready for them,” she said. “To be clear: This does push up our timeframe.”

Herod said in some ways the closure will work in her favor by forcing the issue on lawmakers this session.

Williams rejected GEO Group’s notion that the closure was the fault of the Polis administration, saying the private prison company has known for years that the state has issues with the way it’s run, primarily concerning understaffing.

“I don’t think it was our fault that this happened,” Williams said. “The problems with that facility occurred long before the governor announced his budget. In fact, the first week or so I was on the job I was briefed about some of the problems at that facility.”

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Williams said to accommodate the closure, his agency will likely have to keep people in Colorado’s already crowded county jails longer, double-bunk inmates in existing facilities and release offenders who are nearing their parole eligibility dates.

State Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and Weld County’s former sheriff, said GEO Group’s decision is the fault of Democrats and the governor. “I think GEO did the only thing they could do,” he said. 

Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis, said the rapid closure is “another reason the state should not heavily rely on private prisons, which are clearly motivated by profit margins and which do not help reduce recidivism.”

“The governor looks forward to working with the legislature to ensure there is a smooth transition,” Cahill said.

As for the 180 employees at GEO’s Colorado Springs facility, the private prison company says they “will be offered transition assistance, consistent with our corporate policies.” The Colorado Department of Corrections says it will work to find them jobs within their agency, as well. 

Williams said the state still has a contract with a GEO Group subsidiary to provide electronic monitoring equipment for offenders.

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...