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Gazette Premium Content State pays millions as prison populations sink

ANN IMSE Updated: March 9, 2013 at 12:00 am

Colorado’s governor and legislature quietly agreed last year to pay millions to a private prison company for cells the state would not need.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, who headed the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee at the time, said the deal was negotiated in the governor’s office. She and other legislators agreed with the plan because it delayed the threatened closure of private prisons by Corrections Corp. of America. That would have resulted in devastating job losses in several rural Colorado communities where the jails are located.

Officials knew the number of inmates had been declining in Colorado since 2009, and five state and private prisons already have closed. Projections now show that in the near future, two to 10 more state and private prisons could close, depending on the size of the facilities chosen.

In the end, officials decided to wait until after a study is completed this June, with recommendations on which ones would be most efficient to shut down.

The deal to keep sending inmates to private prisons wasted at least $2 million in state tax money, says Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

The total could be far more. The state already has 1,000 empty beds in various state prisons and that number is rising by nearly 100 a month. That includes 300 beds in cellblocks shut temporarily until the study is completed. Officials need some beds open for flexibility, but won’t say how many.

The deal gave CCA a written promise of 3,300 prisoners, at $20,000 each, for the fiscal year that ends this June. Details were hashed out a year ago during meetings between the governor’s office, CCA and its Colorado lobbyist, Mike Feeley.

Eric Brown, spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper, said, “The General Assembly and the governor agreed to have a year where no other communities were affected by a prison closure” due to uncertainty about the number of prisoners and the impact of closing other prisons last year.

CCA said in an email that the agreement with state officials was part of its “flexibility to manage their changing needs.” CCA also pointed out that it provides 600 jobs in the Eastern Plains towns of Olney Springs, Burlington and Las Animas.

Department of Corrections director Tom Clements added, “I think it’s worth the time and investment to do the analysis.”

Colorado currently has 20 state-owned prisons. Another four are privately owned, including the three CCA facilities for minimum-to-medium-security inmates from Colorado and other states.

“The whole idea around private prisons was that they were overflow, that we would only use them to the extent that we needed them,” Donner said.

Donner was critical of the deal, which she noted was “negotiated behind closed doors.”

“There was no (public) hearing on this whatsoever,” said the longtime activist. “I didn’t even find out about it until way after the fact, when all of a sudden I started to see the number of people in the private prisons start to increase. And I thought, ‘That’s odd…’

“Somebody just made a comment that they had given a 3,300 bed guarantee to Corrections Corporation of America, and I was stunned.”

The state’s Joint Budget Committee staff confirmed there was no announced hearing on the decision.

The secrecy is also backed by a lack of documentation of any of the discussions that occurred between Hickenlooper’s staff, CCA and legislators. The governor’s office responded to two Colorado Open Records Act requests seeking details about the deal without providing a single record of the negotiations, or how the 3,300-prisoner figure was reached.

Asked how the governor justified making such an important and expensive decision in secret, Hickenlooper’s spokesman responded, “There is no way for the governor to send funds to a private company as a result of a backroom meeting,” because the legislature makes all funding decisions.

Office calendars for the governor, his chief of staff Roxane White and his budget director Henry Sobanet show a meeting with CCA executives and lobbyist Feeley in the governor’s offices in the morning of March 28, 2012.

That afternoon, the budget committee began an unannounced discussion of the possible shutdown of CCA’s prison in Burlington, if Colorado continued to reduce inmates there.

State Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said he worked with the governor’s office to contract for the prison closure study, modeled on a military base closure report. It is being conducted by a contractor, without a personal stake. “We don’t want to close a prison while the study is being done,” he said at the meeting that day.

The next morning, the Pueblo Chieftain quoted chief of staff White saying CCA had threatened to cut jobs and shut a prison if it didn’t receive help. The prison in Burlington was only half-full. “CCA has said that if we don’t figure something out, they will be in a situation where they have to close a prison,” she was quoted as saying. “We need in the neighborhood of $10 million to $15 million to keep the private prisons all operational.”

Feeley, a former legislator and a Democratic powerbroker in Colorado, denied any threat to shut a prison. But he did note that everyone knew CCA had mothballed its prison in Walsenburg in 2010 for lack of inmates. “CCA really feels we’re in a partnership with the state,” which compromised on a figure that shared the pain of reduced inmates, he said.

The budget committee effectively signed off on the deal when it later budgeted the extra CCA funds. The legislature then approved the budget containing the payment.

Because the number of inmates in Colorado is dropping even faster than projected, the deal is costing more than expected. Legislators thought the inmate population would drop anywhere from 160 to 1,256 by this June. Instead, the total fell by far more – 1,700 by February. The current population of 20,140 is close to where legislators thought the state would be two and a half years from now.

Colorado has fewer prisoners largely because the crime rate has dropped by a third in a decade. The state also changed its sentencing structure, and has allowed prisoners to earn more time off for good behavior.

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