If we are closing in on zero growth, why would we need more prisons? It's getting close to legislative time I suppose. Let's build treatment facilities instead and see how much more successful we are at the end of the day.
Ari Zavaras wants the Colorado Legislature to start talking about building new state prisons again.
As executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Zavaras told the Legislature's Capital Development Committee on Wednesday that despite recent efforts to reduce recidivism, the state still has a great need for more prison beds.
He highlighted several Southern Colorado prisons that he said are in need of expansion, including lockups in Pueblo and Trinidad, that add up to more than $500 million.
"Over the years, our inmate population has grown about the size of a prison a year," Zavaras told the six-member committee, which began its annual review of which capital construction projects the Legislature will fund next year.
"As of Oct. 31, 2007, the inmate population was 22,673. (Legislative Council Services) projects our population at 23,475 at the end of this fiscal year, and at 28,336 by year 2012. That really tells us the department still has some serious bed needs," Zavaras said.
Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins said there is not much chance the Legislature will be able to come up with the money Zavaras is seeking, but suggested that lawmakers should discuss some other way to obtain the money."This half a billion dollars is sobering," Bacon said. "I think we're at a crisis with dealing with this public safety issue."
Zavaras said efforts that he and Gov. Bill Ritter have pushed to reduce recidivism are starting to produce results.
State inmates being housed in county jails are at an all-time low, and monthly inmate growth is the lowest it's been in years, he said.
Regardless of those efforts, the department still faces some critical infrastructure needs, particularly in the San Carlos Correctional Facility located on the Colorado Mental Health Institute-Pueblo campus, Zavaras said.
He's asking the committee for nearly $60 million to double the size of that 250-bed facility, which primarily is used to house mentally ill inmates.
Zavaras also wants to start a phased expansion of the 484-bed Trinidad Correctional Facility to the 2,541-bed "mega-facility" that was initially planned. That project would cost a whopping $337 million to complete.
Other expansion projects the department is requesting include:
Expanding the 224-bed Colorado Women's Correctional Facility in Canon City by 284 beds at a cost of approximately $47 million.
Adding 384 beds to the 1,007-bed Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Crowley at a cost of approximately $61 million.
Turning the 500-bed Fort Lyon Correctional Facility, which also houses mentally ill inmates, into one that has 750 beds at a cost of approximately $24 million.
Despite the high cost of new prisons, the capital construction requests are only a fraction of the total requests the committee handles each year.
The committee already is trying to prioritize an estimated $516 million in requests, which range from renovating track for the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad to fixing up crumbling buildings on college and university campuses.
Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West and a member of the committee, said the Legislature and the rest of the state need to consider other options to pay for new prisons, such as bonding and lease agreements, or take an issue to the voters to raise state revenues, including a possible tax increase.
"There is no question that the security and the safety of Colorado public depends upon ensuring we have enough beds in the Colorado state prisons system, and private prisons are not the answer," McFadyen said.
"We're going to have to have a very public debate . . . as to how we're going to come up with the funding. I'm a state representative who doesn't want to build more prisons. Nobody does. But we're faced with a crisis. We have no choice. We're going to have to look at every funding method possible," she said.The Chieftain