MY TOUR OF COLORADO’S PRISONS
I accepted an offer from the Department of Corrections (DOC) staff to go with other legislators on a two-day tour of several state prisons; we went on June 30 and July 1. The travel and lodging were entirely at our own expense, as well as meals, except for lunch both days prepared by inmates. We saw 10 facilities in Canon City, Pueblo, and Crowley County.
The Colorado DOC houses about 23,000 people. At least 75% are estimated to be drug or alcohol abusers. About 5,000 are imprisoned for sexual assault. The 3-year recidivism rate for the system is 53%, which is lower than many other states.
We began our tour at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City. It is the oldest state prison, built by inmates when Colorado was still a territory. It was formerly called “Old Max,” but it is now a facility for medium security (Level 3) and administrative segregation (Level 4), rather than maximum security (Level 5). This is the place where license plates are made, as well as the state seals and numerous signs and plaques. Part of it is used to house prisoners who are being transported to and from court, parole, hospitals, or other prisons. It is the prison with a full infirmary, a hospice for prisoners, and cells designed for handicapped inmates.
Next we toured Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), the maximum security prison. CSP is the place that has the state’s death chamber. Colorado uses lethal injection to put people to death. The death chamber has been used only twice in the last 42 years – once in 1967 and once in 1997. CSP houses violent inmates and provides programs in behavior modification, anger management, victim awareness, and gang deprogramming. Its goal is to move prisoners to the “general population” in other facilities; it has the very low rate of 12% of inmates returning from other prisons because of the effectiveness of its programs. Prisoners in CSP are allowed only 15 minutes outside of their cell each day, when they are allowed to go to a special cell for exercise; it has an opening for fresh air and a bar to do pull-ups – that is all. The education and treatment programs are delivered to inmates through television sets in their cells. Any time prisoners are taken out of their cells, they have their arms and legs chained and are accompanied by two guards.
Near CSP stands CSP II, recently built, but empty because this year’s budget cuts included a rescission of its funding. The DOC was hoping to expand maximum security into CSP II and expand medium security in CSP I, but that won’t be possible until the state budget recovers. We were told that by the time CSP II opens, the warranty on its construction will have expired.
We passed by Skyline, a minimum security prison (Level 1). It looked like a dormitory. We were told that the inmates housed there have their own keys so they can lock their cells. They do maintenance of prison grounds and make deliveries, or they work in a number of Correctional Industries off site. Some of these inmates work in the SWIFT (State Wildland Inmate Fire Team) program around the state, and some work in highway beautification.
We ate lunch at Four-Mile, a “minimum restricted” (Level 2) facility. This is where the culinary arts program is located. During lunch we had a presentation about Correctional Industries (CI). These include agriculture, dairies of both cows’ and goats’ milk, the manufacturing of 50 different products (including furniture, saddles, and garments), fish farms (for tilapia and trout), and recycling. CI generates a cost-offset of $7 million from the sale of its products. All the furniture and flags used by state departments are purchased from CI. In order to qualify to work in CI, inmates must have a GED, and some must have completed their sex-offender treatment or drug counseling. Correctional occupations also include dog training, domestication of wild horses taken from BLM lands, truck repair, and welding. Inmates earn 60 cents per day, but a few programs give bonuses so that inmates can earn up to $2.00 or $3.00 per day. Part of prisoners’ salary goes into their savings account, and some is used to pay their child support or restitution.
The Fremont prison is a Level 3 facility that has a program for sex offenders. It has 10 therapists who serve 1,400 inmates. It has an extensive education program where inmates can get ESL (English as a Second Language), Adult Basic Education, a GED, a high school diploma, or even higher education through Adams State College.
Arrowhead Prison is a Level 2 facility that has a “therapeutic community,” primarily for drug abusers and sex offenders. Inmates in the program receive extensive therapy to become aware of their negative behavior, take responsibility for their past criminal behavior, engage in self-help groups, and show leadership with other inmates. They learn patience, confront their fears and insecurities, and acknowledge their need for help. They can participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. A few of the inmates spoke with us about the program and their own criminal backgrounds. From their stories, it became apparent that their criminal behavior began between the ages of 10 and 14 and was largely influenced by people in their lives who were criminals or gang members.
The minimum and medium security prisons have large yards where inmates can exercise, play ball, or work out on fitness equipment. The inmates in these facilities are outside of their cells much of the day to do their jobs, eat their meals, go to classes, and go to the prison library. The cells generally have 1 or 2 inmates, and each inmate has his own bulletin board and a bin to store his belongings. The cells are designed with shelves to accommodate television sets that inmates can purchase with some of their earnings. Each inmate is allocated a few sets of clothing (green shirts and pants). There are official counts 6-7 times per day, when inmates must return to their cells, which are then locked, and they must appear at the window of the cell door to show their ID to the guard doing the count.
We began the second day of our tour by visiting the private prison in Crowley County run by the Colorado Corrections Association. This facility houses about 1,600 inmates in Level 1, 2, or 3 security. This program is comparable to the DOC minimum and medium security prisons, with incentives for good behavior and educational and vocational activities. The exercise program is more extensive, with a large gym and softball tournaments. The vocational program includes a recording studio. The construction program builds roof supports for Habitat for Humanity. The medical director of its small infirmary told us that many inmates are on medication, often for Hepatitis B or C.
Then we went to Pueblo for the remainder of the tour. We visited San Carlos first, a maximum security prison for mentally ill and mentally handicapped offenders. Although the DOC system has about 7,000 inmates with some mental illness, of which 3,500 are severe, San Carlos can house only 255 at a time, and the average stay is one year. Many of the inmates there are self-destructive or suicidal. Therefore, the facility deals with crisis management and works to enable its inmates to go back into the general prison population, by being appropriately medicated and learning essential life skills. The rate at which inmates return to this program from other prisons is 32%. The facility is very staff-intensive and expensive. It was built in 1995 to serve its specific purpose. The cost would be about $60 million to build another like it.
We visited the Youth Offender System facility, which houses males and females entering the system at ages 14 through 19. It is a sentencing option that young convicts can choose as a way to serve a sentence that is greatly reduced – no more than 7 years – but with no chance for parole. The cells in YOS are not locked, and they have desks and closets in addition to the amenities that regular DOC cells have. The inmates attend school each day, and 97% of them leave with either a high school diploma or a GED. Pueblo Community College provides classes for inmates eligible for higher education. About 76% of the inmates leave with some kind of vocational certificate. The facility provides cognitive intervention therapy, sex offender treatment, guided group interaction, and gang deprogramming. About 87% of the inmates have had some gang affiliation.
The last prison we visited was La Vista, a minimum to medium security facility for women. The inmates there work in various jobs, including horticulture, farming (crews go out to help in local farms), or maintenance for Colorado State University at Pueblo. The facility provides educational programs for a GED, community college, and vocational certifications. La Vista contains the Pre-Release Program, where inmates approaching release from prison learn job-hunting skills and do planning for survival in society, such as finding housing.
The tour was very educational and worthwhile. It reassured me that our tax dollars are well spent. I was surprised at how clean and orderly the prisons are. Although we got to speak with prisoners only in minimum and medium security, I was surprised at how friendly and willing to answer our questions they were. However, it didn’t change my opinion that the state needs some sentencing reform. I know that for the cost of housing one prisoner per year - $30,000 – we could be paying for 10 children in the Colorado Preschool Program, which research shows would likely prevent them from going into prison in the long run.