This Jail for Hire

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

"The board can't deal with the numbers," says Bob Sylvester, president of Dismas House, a nonprofit refuge in Denver for parolees who can't find other placement. "Guys are getting set back three years at a time [until their next parole hearing], and I don't know if that's based on their case or because the board just doesn't want to see them next year because they're so overloaded."

"There are literally thousands of people in the Colorado system who have done their time," Lauen insists. "I'd bet my boots that at least 60 percent, by any standardized level of risk, could be released today. But because they got in somebody's face at DOC, or for some political reason, they're still in. The board always plays it safe."

A 1994 analysis by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice indicates that the state could free up 928 beds by releasing all of its low- and medium-risk offenders at their first parole hearing--but 210 of those would be expected to return to the system within one year on new crimes. Reform advocates like Lauen and Sylvester say that the DOC isn't putting its resources into addressing that kind of recidivism; the department is pouring money into prison expansion rather than better pre-release programs and other measures that help prepare inmates to get out and stay out.

Sylvester says Dismas House recently accepted a parolee released directly from the Colorado State Penitentiary, the DOC's 23-hour-lockdown, maximum-security prison. "I won't take any more from there," he vows. "I tried my damnedest to get this kid moved to pre-release first, but they refused to move him. When he came to us, he hadn't seen the sun in two and a half years. It took two and a half weeks before they arrested him and took him back."

In fact, the parole process is expected to add to the overcrowding problem over the next few years. In 1993 the legislature decided that all prisoners should serve a mandatory period of parole of up to five years--a widening net that also increases the number of low-level parole violators sent back to prison. Current projections state that the parole population will double over the next six years and that the number of parole violators in prison will rise by more than 150 percent, from 818 to 2,080.

With no relief in sight from sentencing reform or parole, the out-of-state transfers of Colorado prisoners will probably continue for at least another year. But DOC director Ari Zavaras is confident that the department's continuing expansion program will eventually catch up with the crunch, despite lawsuits and construction delays.

"The legislature has funded a number of our requests that in the not-too-distant future will allow us to get all our inmates back here," Zavaras declares.

Zavaras declines to be more specific, saying he doesn't want to raise false expectations. Yet it seems clear that the department is counting on Colorado's own private prisons, fittingly enough, to take up the slack. A referendum that would have allowed the state to enter into long-term contracts with private turnkeys was defeated last fall, but that hasn't discouraged plans for a 300-bed pre-release center in Weld County and a 752-bed minimum-security prison in Huerfano County--both privately run. A third private prison, operating just outside the town of Las Animas in Bent County, has announced plans to expand.

The Weld County site is still being challenged by local residents, but bulldozers have already broken ground on the southern Colorado prison, located in an industrial park outside Walsenburg. The $36 million project will be entirely financed and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, the largest of all private prison companies. Founded in 1983 by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors, Tennessee-based CCA now operates more than two dozen prisons in six states, the United Kingdom and Australia.

In mid-July the Department of Corrections began the first of what is expected to be a quarterly "rotation" of some of the prisoners sent to Texas. Over a weekend, 35 prisoners were removed from the Karnes County jail and bused to the San Antonio airport. They stood on the tarmac while dozens of other prisoners from Colorado, shackled and under the watchful eye of guards armed with machine guns, deplaned and took their first gulp of hot, humid south Texas air. The prisoners from Karnes County then flew Western Pacific to Colorado Springs, while 106 of the glum new arrivals headed for the Taco Cabana.

According to the rumor mill, more transfers are expected soon. But men who have already spent more than fourteen months in Texas aren't counting on a miraculous rescue by DOC--or by the ACLU, which has been preparing a report by prison expert Katsampes on the Karnes facility for months.

"The guys they took back were up for parole or had court dates or medical problems," says David Crosby. "Nobody knows how long the rest of us have to be here."

Garry Izor was one of the fortunate, returned as a hardship case because of his wife's illness. "Emotionally, it's cost Sandi a lot more than it cost me," he says. "I never thought I'd say I was pleased to be back in a Colorado penitentiary, but I am."

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