Ethical concerns central to state study on closure of Colorado's private prisons

Christian Burney
LA Junta Tribune

After a bill aimed at reducing Colorado's incarcerated population passed last year, Bent and Crowley counties have been wrestling with the implications of a future less reliant on private prisons.

Some public officials have acknowledged the arguments in favor closing Colorado's private prisons but still make a case for keeping them open. Others say the for-profit private prison industry is built around exploitation of inmates.

Colorado House Bill 20-1019 required a study to look into the effects closing the state's private prisons would have on local communities. The study done for the private prisons at Bent and Crowley Correctional Facilities, owned and operated by CoreCivic, concluded that the prisons should remain open for now, largely due to the negative economic impact closure could have on the areas.

Ethical concerns centered on an industry that persists on continued incarceration of a certain percentage of the state's population were a big motivation for the two main sponsors of the bill.

The bill's first draft of called for Colorado to close its private prisons by 2025. The House passed the bill to much public outcry locally, but things slowed in the Senate, where it was amended to mandate a study on the community effects of closing the facilities, specifically including the economic impact in Bent, Crowley and Otero counties.

State Rep. Leslie Herod and Sen. Julie Gonzales, the Denver Democrats who sponsored the bill, told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat in 2020 that it was driven by a decline in prison population across Colorado, a trend that Herod said is expected to continue downward, if only slightly.

The bill is meant to help determine how to best manage the state's prison population going forward, given the goal of reducing recidivism rates and decreasing sentences.

"We shouldn't just keep prisons open just for jobs," Herod said. "We should actually transition communities into sustainable employment options for them. And it's not sustainable. We don't need to continue to grow our prison population, and we're not going to keep prisons open — especially private prisons that have bad outcomes, poor outcomes — simply because we want to keep people in jobs.

On recidivism rates, Herod said, "High recidivism means that people are coming out of jail, committing crimes, and then going back to jail. It's because they're not prepared to succeed. So that means that we are increasing our public safety risks when we don't provide the right programming within jail and the transition out."

Rocky Ford resident Duane Gurule opposes continued operations of the private prisons in Southeast Colorado.

He has a bachelor of science in computer information systems from Metro State University and works as the community organizer for Southeast Colorado at Colorado Trust, which focuses on increasing health equity in the region, he said. He also serves as director for the board of Southeast Health Group and is board chairman for CDS Policy Control.

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Gurule said his education and experience demonstrate his "passion and knowledge for business economics, social justice and education," but said his most important qualifications come from his personal experience as a Hispanic minority from a low-income family and as a formally incarcerated person in both state and private prisons.

Gurule said private prisons make their money by incarcerating inmates and described their business models as "essentially making incarcerated people a required commodity for financial gain."

Gurule said the mission of incarceration should always be to reform and prepare inmates to rejoin society and asserted that private prisons do not have proper incentive to reform or to rehabilitate their inmates.

"The late Huerfano County, Kit Carson facility, as well as Bent County, Crowley County, are known among inmates as the Las Vegas and Wild West of DOC," Gurule said. "It's a free-for-all in those places, which is not only detrimental to rehabilitation, but also (leads to) criminal activity as they are coming out.

"I'm in 100% agreement that losing a company of this size would have a detrimental effect on the region's economy," Gurule said at the Bent County public input hearing. "However, my opinion is that we cannot ethically support a company which makes a profit on the incarceration of human beings."

At the Crowley County public input hearing the night prior, Gurule suggested that CoreCivic doesn't value its employees as much as its shareholders' expectations.

"Twenty-two states have banned the use of private prisons," Gurule said.

And as that has happened, "we are seeing major investment and hedge funds pull out of the private prison industries," Gurule said. "This company is on the decline in an industry that is burning out. We have two of CoreCivic's detention facilities in a state that has increasingly passed some of the most unfriendliest policies for their industry."

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Privateprisons pay less, offer fewer programs

Herod's bill provides more access to mental health programming, job transition programs and addiction treatment for inmates, things she said were lacking in state facilities.

The study, performed by RPI Consulting and CGL Companies, also cited a lack of access to health and job programs within private southeast prisons in Southeast Colorado.

The Bent and Crowley correctional facilities are on average one-third cheaper to operate than comparable medium security state-run facilities, with the Bent County prison costing about $61.78 million annually to operate and the Crowley County private prison costing about $62.28 million, according to information from Karl Becker of CGL Companies, who spoke at the Nov. 30 virtual Crowley County public input hearing.

The costs of operation are driven down by fewer health programs and lower-paid staff. Becker observed that the state doesn't compensate private prisons for including such programs.

"Sex offender treatment, drug treatment, cognitive behavior therapy — state facilities tend to have a lot more of those programs than the privates do," Becker said. "The privates simply are not paid to have those facilities in their program components.

"The other significant factor in components of price is the cost of staffing. The floated cost of a correctional officer in state facilities is around $72,000 a year with benefits. Comparable figure for private facilities is around $42,000. There is a substantial cost difference in staffing between private and state-run facilities."

Becker said the lower pay makes it harder for private prisons to retain staff; both private prisons in Bent and Crowley counties suffer a turnover rate "in excess of 50% annually" because employees leave those positions for better pay with the state.

'Make sure there's a transition'

Herod said that if Colorado's private prisons are to eventually close, options such as a buy-back of the facilities by the state would be included.

"What we can do is buy back facilities, utilize them for different things, and make sure there's a transition for that community that's there."

Gurule suggested that Bent and Crowley counties leverage their positions to get the state to develop a programming budget that would incentivize "the right company" to come to their areas. Gurule proposed a cannabis company.

"We are in a position as a community to use this study to our advantage by being proactive in creating a better economy founded on innovation and leading in what we know best: agriculture.

"My recommendation is for our leaders to work hard now to recruit companies looking for a new home in Colorado, like a company in the cannabis cultivation and processing industry," Gurule said: "A $60 million industry that has and will continue to see exponential growth as policies shift in favor of that industry. A company that needs the infrastructure and workforce that Bent County can offer; a for-profit company that would continue to pay the property taxes the county depends on. A company that could provide the annual payroll required to stimulate the local economy for growth."

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Although the facilities in Bent and Crowley County don't appear to be slated for closure at this time, their futures aren't readily apparent.

Factors that will inform the state and communities about the Colorado prison system were destabilized by the COVID-19 pandemic, which the study found reduced the state prison population by more than half in 2020.

Although incarceration is down across the state, the private facilities in Bent and Crowley counties are operating just under their maximum recommended capacities.

Prison conditions under scrutiny

The final public comment provided at the Dec. 1 Bent County public input hearing was made by an anonymous caller who leveled multiple allegations of abuse or misconduct inside Bent County Correctional Facility.

The caller identified herself as the fiancée of an inmate inside the Bent prison facility. She criticized the various programs offered by the facility to inmates, saying that programs are themselves limited in number as well as the available space within them.

"Since the lockdown began because of COVID, they've barely been let out of their cells," the caller said. "They are barely being served proper portions of food. They're not able to order canteen. Men in there are out of food and are relying on what the prison is providing, which is really nothing."

Responding to a request for comment on allegations of mistreatment, CoreCivic Public Affairs Manager Ryan Gustin said the caller's claims "do not reflect the affirmative, proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 that BCCF staff have been taking for months. We care deeply for our hardworking, dedicated employees and the people in our care, and we’re committed to their health and safety. We work hard to ensure that they have the necessary tools to feel safe every day."

In November 2020, the Bent County Democrat reported that a nurse who had worked at the Bent County facility, Dannette Karapetian, was suing CoreCivic  and alleging retaliation over her complaints about discrimination and quality of patient care.

The nurse alleges a supervisor began discriminating against her in 2018 because the supervisor "was disgusted and upset" that Karapetian had competed 25 years earlier in a bikini modeling contest.

Around the same time, the nurse "began expressing concerns (to another supervisor) about the quality of patient care the inmates were receiving," the filing states.

It goes on to say that a supervisor created "a hostile work environment" and the nurse began making a series of formal complaints within the company about it.

The La Junta Tribune-Democrat inquired about the status of the lawsuit with CoreCivic.

Although Gustin declined to comment on details of the lawsuit itself, he said CoreCivic "does not tolerate any forms of sexual harassment and takes these allegations very seriously. Employees receive various types of training and have multiple options to report these types of allegations, including (but not limited to) notifying a staff member or management, contacting Human Resources, or contacting CoreCivic's Ethics and Compliance hotline and website."