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This Jail for Hire

Colorado's cheap solution to prison overcrowding has cost inmates plenty. It could cost the state millions.

Colorado has been shipping inmates out of state to relieve overcrowding for nine years--longer, Griego says, than any other state. The prison-building boom of the past decade has failed to keep up with lengthier sentences and tougher parole requirements, leaving the DOC with roughly eight beds for every ten prisoners. In addition to the Texas contracts, the DOC currently has 250 prisoners in a private prison in Minnesota; another 300 in jails in El Paso, Park and Teller counties through contract arrangements; and 450 more backed up in other county jails around the state, waiting for a prison bed.

"Every year we've been doing this since '87, I've been told, this is it, the legislature is going to give us the money to build more beds," Griego says. "But those projections never net out to what they should be."

Griego is the DOC's point man for the Texas transfers and the principal defender of the practice. But even he concedes that shipping prisoners out of state is only a stopgap response to a festering problem. "Would we rather that everybody be in Colorado? Absolutely," he says. "We're not disputing that these are jails, not prisons. It's a tough place to put inmates."

Colorado pays Karnes County $41 per inmate per day--a relative bargain by Colorado standards, since housing an inmate in the DOC costs an average of $58 per day. "It's cheaper, but the cost savings--that's kind of hard to say, after you go into litigation, the wear and tear on people, the travel," Griego notes. "I think it kind of evens out."

In fact, the true cost of the program may be higher than anyone knows. Any reckoning of the price Colorado is paying to send prisoners to Texas must take into account the Bowie mess and its aftermath, including the ACLU lawsuit, which may be the most serious threat to the DOC's operating policies since a 1978 class-action suit by the same organization forced the department to shut down antiquated prisons and open new ones. Add to that the mounting claims for damages from inmates acting on their own--jailhouse lawyer Crosby, for instance, has suits pending in Texas and Colorado state courts on various issues, in addition to being a party to the ACLU action. "I will pursue this," he vows.

And then there's the impact the move has had on prisoners' rehabilitation efforts and their often fragile links to families and the outside world. Studies indicate that prisoners who have frequent contact with family members are less likely to commit new crimes, while doing time in isolation increases the risk of recidivism.

Sheilah Rollins, a former DOC chaplain forced out by cuts in the pastoral program last year, says she knows of prisoners being uprooted despite having terminally ill relatives in Colorado, of prisoners going through divorce because of the transfers.

"I just got off the phone with one prisoner's wife who says she can't handle it," she says. "She can't deal with the distance, the anxiety. I've seen inmates cry and plead not to go because of family problems. It didn't make any difference. It reminded me of the stories of slave families being auctioned off and separated to go who knows where. I think it's criminal."

Wives and parents of inmates say they had no prior warning before their loved ones were abruptly relocated 1,000 miles away. Sandi Izor, Garry's wife, visited her husband almost every weekend at prisons all over Colorado--but that was before the DOC sent him to Texas. Collect phone calls from the Karnes County jail are billed at a whopping $8.45 for fifteen minutes; visits involve hundreds of dollars in travel expenses.

"My doctor has gone ballistic over the stress this has put on me," says Sandi, a disabled paralegal who is recovering from triple bypass surgery. "There are a lot of guys who don't get visits and don't have any family here. Why don't they send them to Texas?"

Prisoner advocates charge that the selection process for sending prisoners out of state seems not simply random but capricious. Young and old, rapists and drunk drivers, short-term and long-term prisoners have all made the list, although few with Izor's seniority in the system. Sandi says she was told by DOC officials that Garry was chosen because he could serve as a "stabilizing influence" on other prisoners. "That's his reward for nineteen years of good behavior," she says.

Some inmates, though, say they were singled out for transfer because of a vendetta waged by DOC staff. Others saythey're being warehoused because the rehabilitation programs they need to take in prison to satisfy parole requirements are full. Others, like Jeffery Knapp, say that they're trapped in a catch-22.

Knapp, who recently turned eighteen, was the youngest prisoner among the Texas transfers. He's appealing a fourteen-year sentence for sexual assault and claims he was sent to Bowie County because he refused to enroll in the DOC's sex-offender treatment program. "To enter the program, you have to sign a full confession to the crime you're accused of," explains Knapp. "If I were to do that, I would be forced to withdraw my appeal."

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