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Will throwing more money at the prison system reduce inmate violence?

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Recent Denver Post stories about increasing inmate violence at some state prisons have arrived just in time for the annual budget battle between lawmakers and the Colorado Department of Corrections -- a nice bit of timing that should be regarded with a certain wariness.

The DOC would like to open a second state supermax, known as CSP 2, built at a cost of more than $200 million but sitting empty because of lack of funds to staff the place. The lack of all those lockdown cells has forced the department to house ultraviolent criminals in medium security prisons, the argument goes, leading to deadly encounters, such as the November beating death of a child molester at the Territorial Correctional Facility.

Sounds logical. But legislators should ask a few questions before shelling out more money for administrative segregation measures.

If locking up the bad dudes in isolation was the answer to everything, shouldn't the increasing use of adseg in DOC over the past two decades have led to less violence systemwide? Did the prison population suddenly get more violent, or is the DOC just classifying more inmates as supermax-worthy? And what about places like Limon -- still labeled on the DOC website as a medium security prison but operating as a Level IV or "close security" prison, with some of the most violent and incorrigible prisoners in the entire system?

No one's denying that some prisoners need to be confined in isolation for the protection of other prisoners. But existing adseg cells are, in fact, used for lots of reasons besides locking up incorrigibles -- from punishing relatively minor rules infractions to "protective custody" cases to separating gang members. Then, of course, there's all those folks taking up cells in the current supermax because of untreated mental problems and a lack of space at DOC's special prison for the mentally ill.

Supermaxes are an expensive solution to prison violence. They may be a necessary one, but they're not the only one. A new study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency on "the extravagance of imprisonment" identifies billions in savings that states could achieve by getting serious about incarceration alternatives for chronic but low-level offenders, including drug courts, electronic monitoring and work release programs. In Colorado, the lip service for such measures hasn't resulted in much action, even though getting the small-timers out of the system would help make operations at medium and minimum security prisons a lot easier -- and cheaper.

But we sure love our supermaxes.

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