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The Colorado state Capitol building, seen during a snowstorm on Oct. 29, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

The first steps in a push by Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic leaders to stop the use of private prisons in Colorado are generating criticism and concern about the potential economic impact in rural areas.

The House will vote on a package of spending legislation this week that allows the state to reopen a shuttered prison in Cañon City to accommodate inmates ahead of the March 7 closure of the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center, a private prison in Colorado Springs.

The shift from private prisons is expected to be the most contentious debate on the supplemental budget bills that begins Wednesday. 

The spending package includes $127 million in additional spending in the current and prior fiscal year, largely for increases in Medicaid and education costs, among other areas. The new spending represents a fraction of the state’s total spending, which tops $30 billion a year, but the larger policy implications are drawing most of the attention.

The state is scrambling to reopen the state-run Centennial Correctional Facility South, a one-time maximum-security facility, before GEO Group closes its private prison next month, an abrupt move that came after it was targeted by the Polis administration

The budget package earmarks $8.6 million to provide 308 beds in coming months. But the full cost to the state to run the facility will balloon to $20.8 million in the next fiscal year, when Colorado plans to double the number of beds. 

The end of the contract at the private Cheyenne Mountain will save Colorado $6.4 million in the current fiscal year.

Move away from private prison generates opposition

A related measure — House Bill 1019 — outlines the transfer but includes two other major provisions that are spurring a larger debate about private prisons in Colorado. 

One part of the bill orders a $250,000 study on how the state can responsibily end its reliance on private prisons, and another includes language that appears to make it more difficult for other states to ship inmates to private prisons in Colorado. 

The latter provision comes after Idaho’s corrections board voted to put its inmates in a private prison in Burlington operated by CoreCivic and slated to reopen after closing in 2016. 

Under existing law, the Colorado corrections director cannot “unreasonably” withhold approval of the arrangement. But the bill would change the standard to only allow out-of-state inmates if the director — in consultation with the governor — determines that “exigent circumstances” to protect public health and safety warrant the move.

State Rep. Rod Pelton, a Republican from Cheyenne Wells whose eastern Colorado district includes Burlington, said a prohibition on private prisons would unfairly hurt rural communities where the facilities are located. “I don’t know why there is a bill here to target rural Colorado in such a detrimental way as this bill does,” he said at a hearing Tuesday ahead of the House vote on the bill.

Bent County Commissioner Kim MacDonnell told legislative budget writers earlier this week that any future efforts to close private prisons in southeastern Colorado could hurt their economy and schools. The private prison in Bent County accounts for 25% of the local property tax base, and one in nearby Crowley County accounts for 54% of its total.

Their closure “would have a strong, negative and lasting impact on Bent and Crowley counties,” MacDonnell said. 

Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who is sponsoring the prison legislation, said there’s no current plan to end contacts with those two rural private prisons because the state needs the beds. And she said the study in her bill would include a look at the potential economic impact.

“There is definitely a movement across the country to close private prisons, and it would be irresponsible for us not to have a plan in place for those communities once they leave,” she said.

Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, suggested the study would be biased because it focuses too much on how to end the use of private prisons, rather than the local economic impacts. “Why didn’t you use a more balanced approach?” he asked. 

“It’s written that way because it’s my bill, and that’s what I would like to do in it,” Herod responded. “I would like to see what would happen, and how we can phase out private prisons in Colorado. Make no mistake, that’s what I want to see, but I want to see it done responsibly, respectfully and I want to have all the data.”

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