Lawmakers Try to Stop Bleeding Money on CO’s Multimillion-Dollar Empty Prison

The 948 one-person cells of Colorado State Penitentiary II have been empty for nearly three years. The abandoned facility costs taxpayers $20 million per year. Now, lawmakers say they’re working on a plan to put the facility back to use.

The prison opened in 2010 and closed in 2012 when the state cut back on solitary confinement. Colorado taxpayers have been footing the $20 million annual mortgage on the vacant building outside Cañon City ever since.

“It’s a legacy cost from past mistakes,” said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village.

“That prison was built at time when it was believed you could have a more peaceful prison system if the ‘troublemakers’ were removed and put into solitary confinement,” Kagan explained. “We’ve since, fortunately, backed away from that. Solitary confinement is cruel. It’s very destructive of the character that’s in there. And since most folks are going to be released at some point, it’s a dangerous practice to dehumanize individuals who are incarcerated.”

Since lawmakers passed the bill to close the prison, they’ve been working with the Department of Corrections and the Governor’s office to find a way to make use of it, without much luck.

“My first year I wrote a footnote to the budget that said the state should do everything in its power to try to sell it, lease it or turn it into something else,” said Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver. “But there’s nobody who is interested in it. We’re just stuck with this mortgage. We have to pay it.”

Moving forward

This year, members of the Joint Budget Committee say there may hope.

Sen. Lambert, right, looks on as Gov. Hickenlooper signs a bill to shut down CSP II.

Sen. Lambert, right, looks on as Gov. Hickenlooper signs a bill to shut down the solitary confinement prison.

“We’re working a deal on that,” said JBC Chair Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs. “We were thinking about taking intake out of Denver and putting it into CSP II. They don’t have as many restrictions on administrative segregation because it’s so short-term.”

Moving intake – where inmates spend a few days or weeks before being moved to a long-term facility – out of Denver could have more benefits than just finding a use for the old solitary building.

“The facility up here in Denver would become more of a mental health treatment unit for sex offenders and some of the more special needs people,” said JBC member Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.

That move would solve a labor pool problem the DOC is currently facing in its efforts to add more mental health staff to the Fremont Correctional Facility, which is designed to treat sex offenders and is also located outside Cañon City.

The Department of Corrections says the plan is still very preliminary, but the JBC has designated $25,000 to work out the details — including how much it would cost – or save – the state.

Lambert and Steadman are optimistic that if the figures work, the move could start as early as next year.

“We’re paying 20 million dollars a year in debt service for an empty building that we don’t use,” said Steadman, “so it’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo.”

Photo by J.Miller.

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