Allowing profit into the criminal justice system undermines its integrity, effectiveness, and the public trust. We would never tolerate profit incentives for judges, public defenders, or prosecutors; we should not do so for prisons.

Michael Dougherty

Two private, for-profit prisons in Colorado hold roughly 18% of our state’s prison population. These facilities are owned by CoreCivic, a large corporation that earns a profit on every inmate it incarcerates, to the detriment of Colorado’s justice system, incarcerated individuals, taxpayers, and the staff at these facilities.

The State of Colorado pays CoreCivic over $67 million per year in taxpayer dollars to operate these two prisons – the Bent County Correctional Facility and Crowley County Correctional Facility.

Last year, these prisons had a 126% and 107% turnover rate in corrections officers, respectively. With departing employees outnumbering those still working there, these facilities – which house thousands of medium security inmates – are in dire circumstances.

The Department of Corrections is now asking for an additional $5.7 million so that CoreCivic can raise the hourly pay for new officers without cutting into its profit margin. Even if Colorado agrees to pay this exorbitant amount, the staff at these private prisons will still make $2 per hour less than their DOC counterparts.

The Joint Budget Committee reviewing this request also acknowledges that wages may not be the only issue. Poor working conditions, housing options and other factors may be the reasons why people do not want to work there.

Instead of the General Assembly handing out millions to a private company with a problematic track record for how employees and inmates are treated, it is time for us to end the use of private, for-profit prisons. 

The prison population in Colorado has been going down for a long time. The incarceration rate in Colorado decreased by 24% between 2010 and 2019 (pre-Covid). In addition, the number of inmates across all facilities decreased another 3.9% from mid-2019 to mid-2020. Given this long-term trend, the obvious question is whether we still need these two prisons. 

If these facilities are needed, our state should take on the two remaining private prisons and incorporate them into the Department of Corrections. It is clear from their own reporting that the state department is better at running correctional facilities. The state pays better, has much better staff retention, provides better programming and treatment for incarcerated individuals, and offers better re-entry services – which helps to lower the rate of re-offense.

CoreCivic charges less to house a medium security prisoner than it costs at a DOC facility, but we are getting what we pay for – less. Their private prisons cannot retain employees. They provide minimal educational and work programs to inmates, and offer far less mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, when the number of inmates was surging across the country, cheap private prisons with fewer rehabilitative programs held appeal. Today, Colorado has a steadily dropping inmate population and one of the worst recidivism rates in the nation

Private prisons are no longer the right solution. Instead of cut-rate programming, we need prisons that help individuals successfully return to our communities after serving their sentences.

Bent and Crowley Counties depend greatly on these facilities for tax income and employment, despite the tremendous turnover rate for employees. The counties do not want these prisons closed.  For those counties and for the integrity of our justice system, the Department of Corrections should run all the prison facilities.

Private prisons are a dangerous alliance for county governments. Unlike a government agency, a private company like CoreCivic can decide abruptly to close down a facility, with no civic responsibility to the surrounding economy.

This exact situation recently played out in 2020, when Geo Group, another private prison company. unexpectedly shut down a re-entry facility housing hundreds of inmates in Colorado Springs. The state department had to scramble to house the inmates and the local economy lost the jobs and tax income.

Bent and Crowley County would have far more economic security if the Department of Corrections were running these facilities. Private prison companies answer to CEOs and shareholders, not to the communities in which they operate.

Having the Department of Corrections run all the prisons in Colorado would mean our state is taking full responsibility for the administration of justice. The focus of our correctional system would be on public safety, prison safety, rehabilitation, medical and mental health treatment, and reduced recidivism – not the bottom line of a megacorporation.

Soon, the decision of whether to hand out millions more to a private prison company will be made by our General Assembly. The facts speak for themselves. If we care about the integrity of the justice system, the successful rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals, the taxpayers, and the employees, now is the time for Colorado to stop using private prisons. 

Michael Dougherty is the 20th Judicial District Attorney in Boulder. Twitter: @DADoughertyCO.

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