Prison Cells

Lawmakers worked late into the evening Wednesday to craft a delicately worded compromise on a bill that could provide a lifeline for the state’s last two remaining private prisons.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved four amendments to House Bill 1019 and passed the bill unanimously. It now heads to Senate Appropriations.

The amendments have been in the works for several days, but the breakthrough took place Wednesday night after a nearly two-hour negotiating session midhearing.

One major change affects a study on the impacts of closing private prisons on rural counties; an amendment put that study into the hands of the Department of Local Affairs instead of the Department of Corrections. During Wednesday’s hearing, DOC lobbyist Aaron Greco said the state’s goal is to reduce the use of private prisons.

The study has been the subject of controversy for months. In the bill’s original language, the study would look at how to close private prisons, the economic impact on the two rural counties — Bent and Crowley — where the state’s last two private prisons are, and what it would cost the state to buy the prisons.

In the House, Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, agreed to an amendment that said the state would look at “whether” to close private prisons, not “how” to close them. But she has said her goal is to “move in a direction where we will not rely on private prisons” through a change from private to state management. Residents of the two counties fear the study’s outcome has been predetermined.

As amended by the House, the bill said DOC would study the impact on ending the use of private prisons, but the Senate Judiciary Committee changed that to ask DOLA to look at “future prison bed needs in Colorado.” It also stripped out language that said the study would look at “evidence-based strategies to stop using private prisons,” substituting language on “safely reducing prison populations, including moving individuals into alternative facilities or programs.”

According to the amendment, the bill also would set up an advisory committee that would consult with the contractor DOLA hires to do the study. That committee would include at least three representatives of local governments from the impacted counties. In addition, before the study is completed, DOLA would hold public hearings in those counties and incorporate public testimony into the final report.

On Wednesday, 32 residents of the affected counties boarded a bus to Denver for a four-hour ride to plead for their county’s survival with the committee.

One of the major issues for county commissioners and school superintendents is property tax revenue. Crowley County, home to the Crowley County Correctional Facility, derives 54% of its property tax revenue from the CoreCivic-run prison. In Bent County, it’s 25%. Commissioners from both counties have said the counties would go bankrupt if the prisons closed, even if they were even transitioned to state-run facilities.

But that’s not the only loss those communities would face. The committee heard from high school students from LaJunta whose parents work at those prisons and from school district officials from Bent and Crowley who said losing the prisons means losing students.

“We are full of grit and fight for survival,” said Scott Cuckow, superintendent of the Bent County School District. “But we always seem to be under the dark cloud of the Legislature. I’m tired of that dark cloud that the prisons may close, and there goes the wonderful families and people that make southeastern Colorado special.”

Crowley County Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh pointed out that if the state takes over the two private prisons, which he said houses inmates at a lower cost, taxpayers will shell out an additional $49 million per year to cover higher state employer salaries and benefits. “This could be going to schools, health care or roads. This is our money, not yours.”

But it was the testimony of the high school students from LaJunta that impressed committee members most, including committee Chair Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, who commented that the students did a good job of showing how closures would impact their futures.

“The state gave us this opportunity to better ourselves,” said Sophie Klob of LaJunta High School, whose mother and grandparents work at the prisons. “They gave us the heart of the community. Jobs, businesses and municipalities rely on this. To have it ripped away is unfair. … How will this affect the future of my generation?”

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