Private companies are profiting off the imprisonment of almost four thousand Coloradans. While 14,000 inmates are currently being held at Colorado Department of Corrections' (CDOC) 22 state correctional facilities, approximately 20 percent of our prison population are being held at three private prisons. These three facilities are owned by large, for-profit corporations. By allowing profit into the criminal justice system, Colorado has diminished the public's faith and confidence in the integrity of that system.
Private prisons emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, when more restrictive drug laws and sentencing rules caused the prison population to surge. States including Colorado, signed contracts that guaranteed these corporations a minimum number of prisoners, under a standard rate of payment per inmate. And between 2015-2016, Colorado taxpayers paid more than $77 million to private prison corporations.
Because of the inherent conflict of interest between Colorado's Constitutional duties to house and rehabilitate prisoners, and the corporate goal of maximizing profit, private prisons should have no part in our criminal justice system. The custody and rehabilitation of inmates should no longer be outsourced in this manner.
Prison sentences should punish the offender, strengthen our public safety, and provide convicted felons with an opportunity to turn his or her life around so as to eventually rejoin society. The overarching goal is for the prisoner to never re-enter the correctional system. However, private prisons have a perverse incentive to house criminals for longer periods of time and to set them up for recidivism - to turn inmates into repeat customers.
Colorado's private prisons have a significant impact on taxpayers. In fact, the state spent $9 million in 2012 to bail out a failing private prison in Kit Carson County, which would eventually close. Other private prisons in Colorado have remained profitable only by accepting inmates from other states, a practice that has created safety issues for Colorado's prison population. CDOC spent almost $800,000 last year on a unit that exists only to monitor the private prisons. And according to a 2016 CDOC report, these private state prisons are not meeting their mandated requirements to provide inmates with work programs, and show lower success rates for inmate academic, mental health, substance abuse and pre-release programs.
Private prisons frequently exist in Colorado's rural communities and are a welcome, needed source of local employment. To protect these jobs, communities become beholden to these corporations, even though private prisons - including some in Colorado - often prove unprofitable and eventually close. Our state legislature recently granted the CDOC's request for $10.6 million to lease one of these empty private prisons to house an unexpected increase in inmates. Earlier this summer, the Joint Budget Committee of the legislature denied a similar request, saying that the state should just re-open a private prison under private management to handle the overflow of inmates. The Committee has it backwards.
Instead of getting further into bed with the private prison corporations, we should be looking for ways to transfer these facilities to CDOC control. Getting out of the private prison business does not have to mean shutting down these facilities. But we must get the notion of profit out of the equation. We would not tolerate profit incentives for judges, public defenders, or prosecutors; we should not do so for prisons. As a prosecutor for the past 20 years, I strongly believe that a profit-based prison system completely undermines the mission, integrity, and fairness of our justice system.
Our elected officials and the agencies they supervise should be responsible for criminal justice in Colorado. These duties should not be outsourced to private corporations that answer to shareholders, not voters. How a society treats its prisoners is a measure of its integrity. A prison system should be focused on public safety, prison safety, rehabilitation, medical and mental health treatment, and reduced recidivism. When the mission of some of our facilities is tied to the corporate bottom line, it is our state's integrity that ultimately is compromised.
Michael Dougherty has been a prosecutor for over 20 years and is a Democratic candidate for Colorado attorney general. He can be reached at email@example.com.