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Three days 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, 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
(Click on image to enlarge)
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 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
Ari Zavaras, corrections chief for two Democratic governors, said, "I err on the side of inmate safety and officer safety." (The Denver Post | Craig F. Walker)
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.At the time, he said, administrative segregation beds were full, leaving no place to put offenders if there was a murder, riot or violent fight.
"I really felt we had a need," he said. If in doubt, "I err on the side of inmate safety and officer safety."
The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a group that opposed the prison from the start, now questions whether the state will be able to sublet 948 solitary confinement cells.
"The bottom line is we never needed that prison to begin with," said the coalition's Christie Donner, "so it's lose-lose."
None of the repeated objections to building a new solitary confinement prison was heeded until last year, when Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper took office and appointed a new corrections chief, Tom Clements.
Within months, Clements brought in consultants from the National Institute of Corrections to take an independent look at Colorado's solitary confinement system.
Here's what they reported:
• About 7 percent of Colorado prisoners are kept in "administrative segregation," compared to a national average of 1 to 2 percent.
• The average length of stay in solitary cells is about two years.
• Most in solitary confinement "are not being disruptive and have not been disruptive for some time."
• The solitary confinement population in Colorado kept growing even as its overall prison population declined.
• About four of 10 offenders in the system ultimately go straight from cells where they were confined 23 hours a day to the streets.
• The proportion of prisoners with known mental health problems had grown from 22 percent to 40 percent in 11 years.
Clements said he was particularly disturbed by how often "we were taking inmates in restraints to the bus station" and removing the handcuffs there.
"That was a very compelling factor for us," he said.
This year, state legislators unanimously agreed to close the prison
Challenge to "re-purpose"As corrections department spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti walks down a barren hallway of Colorado State Penitentiary II, her heels click audibly. It's that quiet.
The last inmates were moved out in October, along with correctional officers, teachers, medical staff and counselors. Except for the kitchen and laundry, which will serve inmates elsewhere in a six-prison complex, the prison closed Nov. 1.
Sanguinetti outlined the challenges of "re-purposing" this place.
"There is no classroom space. There is no program space, no outdoor recreation, no dining hall," she said.
From one hallway to another, the prison consists of rows of empty cells, identical but for their door colors.