Colorado lawmaker wants to sell new prison
October 10, 2009
DENVER – State Rep. Glenn Vaad said he was stunned when he learned that the Colorado Department of Corrections planned to leave a new, $208 million maximum-security prison empty because of the state’s budget crisis.
“That’s unconscionable in my mind. We invested $208 million of the taxpayers’ money and because of the economic downturn, we can’t afford to open it,” he said. “Let’s sell it.”
Vaad, R-Mead, said the state would have to change state law to allow a private prison to buy or lease the prison because state law bars private companies from housing maximum security prisoners. If lawmakers reject that option, Vaad said it should be sold off and run privately as a medium security prison allowed under current law.
Although the state is currently in a budget crisis and opening the prison has been put on hold, Sen. Moe Keller, who heads the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, state attorney general John Suthers and corrections director Ari Zavaras have all come out against Vaad’s plan, saying it’s too dangerous.
“I would not approve of allowing the private sector to operate maximum security prisons in the state of Colorado,” said Suthers, a Republican. “If you look around the country, placing maximum security detention into private hands has not gone well.”
Keller, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge, said the state has already had serious problems with medium security private prisons and allowing the private operation of a maximum security prison is out of the question.
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“I’m vehemently opposed to selling a maximum security prison to a private company,” Keller said.
However, Keller said she might be open to selling the building to a private company if some other use can be found.
In 2004, a riot in Crowley County left more than a dozen inmates injured and caused extensive damage to five living units, prompting fines against the prison operator, Corrections Corp. of America, and reforms in the way private prisons are run in Colorado. Private companies currently run five contract corrections facilities that care for about 5,200 of the state’s 23,000 inmates, in addition to inmates from other states.
Rep. Buffie McFadyen, a Democrat from Pueblo West who represents state prison workers in her district, said the new building is one of eight prisons inside a barbed-wire compound in Canon City and she said it should be run as a prison, but she’s against private prisons because she believes they are a security risk.
McFadyen said the state cannot leave the building empty because security for the old maximum security prison is being moved to the new facility.
Zavaras said he believes Colorado lawmakers will do the right thing and eventually open the new prison.
“The budget crisis is unprecedented; however, our need for high custody beds is important to manage our prison population,” Zavaras said.
The old facility, the Colorado State Penitentiary now known as Centennial, has 756 beds and as of Sept. 30, was near capacity with 749 inmates.
Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said there are already unfilled beds in other private prisons. She said the real demand is for maximum security, although the state doesn’t know how many beds it will need.
She said some potentially dangerous maximum security inmates are now housed in county jails, but the state has no way of knowing how many there are because they have not been evaluated and they won’t be classified until they can enter the state system.
Last January, Gov. Bill Ritter said the state should delay opening the new prison by one year, along with a new diagnostic center to July 2010, saving $2.7 million.
He also announced the closure of the 210-bed Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility in Canon City effective May 31, saving $5.2 million, eliminating 71 jobs and requiring the transfer and double-bunking of inmates at other facilities.
And that was before state lawmakers learned they will have to cut another $240 million from this year’s $19.1 billion budget by June 30.
Keller said that means everything is on the table, including the sale of state buildings. She said it also means that the prison will probably remain closed for the forseeable future.
Vaad said the state could reap other savings as well if the building is turned over to a private company. He said it costs the state as much as $77 a day to house one prisoner, and private companies are already doing the job for $52 a day.
“We have a budget crisis. I think we use that money for other needs,” he said.