New Colorado Prison Closed Down
(11/14/2012)

CANON CITY, Colo. — Two weeks ago, Colorado shut down a brand-new prison it didn’t need. Unless the state government finds someone else who can use it, Colorado taxpayers can expect to spend $208 million for an empty building.

Finding someone else may not be easy. Colorado State Penitentiary II, also known as Centennial South, consists of 948 solitary-confinement cells. It has no dining room, no gym and no rooms where a group of prisoners could take classes or go to therapy or get vocational training. It’s row after identical row of empty cells.

From the beginning, critics of this project objected, correctly, that Colorado was putting people in solitary confinement at a rate that dwarfed the national average. Yet it was built.

It was built even though most legislators opposed the prison in 2003, according to a key player. Another bit of legislative ingenuity overcame that problem. The sponsors lumped the prison with a new University of Colorado medical campus and gained bipartisan support for two projects financed without a vote of the people. Separately, neither project would have passed, according to Republican Norma Anderson, the Senate majority leader and bill sponsor in 2003.

“You couldn’t get the votes for either one of them,” said Anderson, now a former legislator living in Lakewood. Republicans wanted the prison, Democrats the hospitals, and “that’s the only reason they were put together,” she said. “It’s very simple.”

The other key players in the project were Republican co-sponsor Lola Spradley, House speaker in 2003 and resident of Beulah — prison country; Ari Zavaras, corrections chief for two Democratic governors; and Joe Ortiz, the corrections chief for a Republican governor.

And the statisticians who predicted prison populations played a part. The Division of Criminal Justice, for one, foresaw numbers of Colorado prisoners going up and up. Instead the prison population declined along with the crime rate, while judges sentenced fewer people to prison. Today, Colorado holds about 7,500 fewer prisoners than forecast six years ago.

Opened over objections

Colorado State Penitentiary II was built without a vote of the people, a requirement for Colorado projects that increase state debt, and in spite of a warning from the state treasurer that the voters should decide.

The legislature resorted instead to a financing method called “certificates of participation.” Rather than borrow money to build its own prison, the state sold certificates to investors, becoming the operator of a prison owned by a multitude of lenders.

The prison was built despite a 2005 Colorado Department of Corrections report from its own staff confirming that Colorado held three times as many people in solitary confinement as the average state prison system.

It finally opened in 2010, over renewed objections that Colorado didn’t need it. The corrections department, in turn, won the fight to open it with a misleading claim that most states actually held more prisoners in what the department calls “administrative segregation.” Now it’s empty.

Kent Lambert, a Republican state senator from Colorado Springs, agreed to open the prison in 2010 as a Joint Budget Committee member. This year, after voting to close it, he said he and other legislators feel deceived.

Corrections officials lobbied vigorously to open it, citing “a growing population of violent prisoners,” inadequate facilities and a trend toward more dangerous offenders, Lambert said. Now, some legislators “felt they were being lied to.”

Actually, “those numbers were driven by bad policy, the excess of administrative segregation and the lack of adequate review” for inmates, Lambert said. “If you put people in administrative segregation for years, in some cases even decades without adequate review, we have some potentially serious human-rights violations.”

Ari Zavaras, the department’s executive director in 2010, said he never meant to deceive anyone.

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