Colorado spending $208 million on empty prison

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CANON CITY, Colo. (AP) — Three days ago, Colorado shut down a brand-new prison it didn't need.

Unless the state government finds someone else who can use it, Colorado taxpayers can expect to spend $208 million for an empty building.

Finding someone else may not be easy. Colorado State Penitentiary II, also known as Centennial South, consists of 948 solitary-confinement cells. It has no dining room, no gym, no rooms where a group of prisoners could take classes or go to therapy or get vocational training. It's row after identical row of empty cells.

From the beginning, critics of this project objected, correctly, that Colorado was putting people in solitary confinement at a rate that dwarfed the national average.

Yet it was built.

It was built even though most legislators opposed the prison in 2003, according to a key player. Another bit of legislative ingenuity overcame that problem. The sponsors lumped the prison with a new University of Colorado medical campus and gained bipartisan support for two projects financed without a vote of the people.

Separately, neither project would have passed, according to Republican Norma Anderson, the Senate majority leader and bill sponsor in 2003.

"You couldn't get the votes for either one of them," said Anderson, now a former legislator living in Lakewood.

Republicans wanted the prison, Democrats the hospitals, and "that's the only reason they were put together," she said. "It's very simple."

The other key players in the project were Republican co-sponsor Lola Spradley, House speaker in 2003 and resident of Beulah — prison country; Ari Zavaras, corrections chief for two Democratic governors; and Joe Ortiz, the corrections chief for a Republican governor.

And the statisticians who predicted prison populations played a part. The Division of Criminal Justice, for one, foresaw numbers of Colorado prisoners going up and up. Instead the prison population declined along with the crime rate, while judges sentenced fewer people to prison. Today, Colorado holds about 7,500 fewer prisoners than forecast six years ago.

— Opened over objections

Colorado State Penitentiary II was built without a vote of the people, a requirement for Colorado projects that increase state debt, and in spite of a warning from the state treasurer that the voters should decide.

The legislature resorted instead to a financing method called "certificates of participation." Rather than borrow money to build its own prison, the state sold certificates to investors, becoming the operator of a prison owned by a multitude of lenders.

The prison was built despite a 2005 Colorado Department of Corrections report from its own staff confirming that Colorado held three times as many people in solitary confinement as the average state prison system.

It finally opened in 2010, over renewed objections that Colorado didn't need it. The corrections department, in turn, won the fight to open it with a misleading claim that most states actually held more prisoners in what the department calls "administrative segregation."

Now it's empty.

Kent Lambert, a Republican state senator from Colorado Springs, agreed to open the prison in 2010 as a Joint Budget Committee member. This year, after voting to close it, he said he and other legislators feel deceived.

Corrections officials lobbied vigorously to open it, citing "a growing population of violent prisoners," inadequate facilities and a trend toward more dangerous offenders, Lambert said. Now, some legislators "felt they were being lied to."

Actually, "those numbers were driven by bad policy, the excess of administrative segregation and the lack of adequate review" for inmates, Lambert said. "If you put people in administrative segregation for years, in some cases even decades without adequate review, we have some potentially serious human-rights violations."

Ari Zavaras, the department's executive director in 2010, said he never meant to deceive anyone.

At the time, he said, administrative segregation beds were full, leaving no place to put offenders if there was a murder, riot or violent fight.

"I really felt we had a need," he said. If in doubt, "I err on the side of inmate safety and officer safety."

The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a group that opposed the prison from the start, now questions whether the state will be able to sublet 948 solitary confinement cells.

"The bottom line is we never needed that prison to begin with," said the coalition's Christie Donner, "so it's lose-lose."

None of the repeated objections to building a new solitary confinement prison was heeded until last year, when Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper took office and appointed a new corrections chief, Tom Clements.

Within months, Clements brought in consultants from the National Institute of Corrections to take an independent look at Colorado's solitary confinement system.

Here's what they reported:

— About 7 percent of Colorado prisoners are kept in "administrative segregation," compared to a national average of 1 to 2 percent.

— The average length of stay in solitary cells is about two years.

— Most in solitary confinement "are not being disruptive and have not been disruptive for some time."

— The solitary confinement population in Colorado kept growing even as its overall prison population declined.

— About four of 10 offenders in the system ultimately go straight from cells where they were confined 23 hours a day to the streets.

— The proportion of prisoners with known mental health problems had grown from 22 percent to 40 percent in 11 years.

Clements said he was particularly disturbed by how often "we were taking inmates in restraints to the bus station" and removing the handcuffs there.

"That was a very compelling factor for us," he said.

This year, state legislators unanimously agreed to close the prison

— Challenge to "re-purpose"

As corrections department spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti walks down a barren hallway of Colorado State Penitentiary II, her heels click audibly. It's that quiet.

The last inmates were moved out in October, along with correctional officers, teachers, medical staff and counselors. Except for the kitchen and laundry, which will serve inmates elsewhere in a six-prison complex, the prison closed Nov. 1.

Sanguinetti outlined the challenges of "re-purposing" this place.

"There is no classroom space. There is no program space, no outdoor recreation, no dining hall," she said.

From one hallway to another, the prison consists of rows of empty cells, identical but for their door colors.

It was built for prisoners confined at the highest level of security, who spent 23 hours a day in the cell. In the remaining hour, they could take a shower and exercise in a bare 25-foot corridor with pull-up handles at one end.

Each cell came with a shiny metal toilet and sink, a thin gray mattress, a plastic bin for belongings, clothes hooks and a computerized kiosk.

The kiosk provided the links to the world outside. Without leaving their cells, inmates could order library books or shampoo, watch TV, take prison classes, communicate with counselors and make phone calls to relatives visible on a remote screen in Cañon City or Denver.

Meals came through a slot in the door. Before an inmate left the cell, he would "cuff up" — back up to the slot, put his hands out and get handcuffed before the door opened.

The prison, a gray concrete building with three towers of cells, was erected in an expansive prison complex beneath the sandstone bluffs of Cañon City.

The prisons within range from small minimum security buildings that look more like assisted-living homes, with yards and flower gardens, to maximum security facilities.

On the grounds, spread over 9 square miles across the Arkansas River from a Cañon City park, inmates with outdoor privileges grow grapes, Honeycrisp apples and tilapia. They milk cows and goats and a herd of water buffalo, whose milk is used to make mozzarella cheese for gourmet markets. They tame wild horses to be sold and adopted.

Who might use the empty prison on these grounds? Possibly the Federal Bureau of Prisons, whose Supermax prisons rely on similar conditions of solitary confinement.

So far, no takers.

"It's a really nice facility," Clements said. "I don't know exactly what the future holds."

Each week, Dianna Lawyer-Brook drives three hours from her Boulder home to the prison complex, where her 37-year-old son is serving his 13th year of an indeterminate sentence for kidnapping and rape. He's on a long waiting list, she said, for therapy that is a prerequisite for his release.

On each visit, she passes what strikes her as a huge concrete monument of government waste.

"You think about how much it cost. You think about where else the money could have been spent," she said. "What are you going to do with that building? What a waste of money."

Her son Chris has gone through two stints of solitary confinement, one for about seven months, one for about a year, passing his time by reading a lot and practicing Buddhist meditations.

Others paced, day after day, wearing paths in concrete floors.

When Elisabeth Owen, a Colorado Prison Law Project attorney, considers the newly closed prison, one word leaps to mind: "Boondoggle."

"They were scrambling to find people to put in this prison," she said.

During the long fight to get the prison built, the corrections department insisted it needed 948 more solitary confinement cells. But from the day the prison opened, just one of three 316-bed towers was occupied.

How the prison bill passed

A brief history:

In 2003, the year Colorado legislators decided to build the prison, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition objected that Colorado had the third-largest percentage of inmates in solitary confinement of 38 reporting states — "7.5 percent of our state's total prison population."

But once the prison and medical campus were lumped together in a single bill, legislator after legislator confided, "I'm sorry, I don't want to build this prison, but I gave my vote to CU," said Christie Donner, who lobbied against it for the coalition.

The state treasurer in 2003, Republican Mike Coffman, told legislators he recognized that selling certificates of participation to investors — a long- term rent-to-own contract — was considered legal under Colorado's TABOR act, which requires voter approval of projects that increase the state's capital debt.

But because failing to make a payment would ruin the state's credit, "the treasurer views this particular type of financing really as a form of long-term debt," he said. "A better approach is to ask for a vote of the people."

House Speaker Lola Spradley responded by telling legislators that "what you have here is a really good example" of the separation of powers between them and the executive branch. "It is the legislature's responsibility to do the budget and to allocate those priorities and those resources," she said.

The bill passed. Republican Gov. Bill Owens signed it. The coalition sued, objecting to legislation combining a prison and medical campus in a single bill.

In 2005, before construction of the new prison began, a report from Maureen O'Keefe, a corrections department researcher, concurred that Colorado prisons held an extraordinary percentage of prisoners in solitary cells, in part because of the state's zero-tolerance policy toward prison gang activity.

"Despite Colorado exceeding national averages, another larger prison ... is scheduled for construction," O'Keefe wrote. "Yet it remains unknown how many potential violent acts have been diverted with administrative segregation as a management tool."

She also found the median stay in administrative segregation in Colorado was more than 18 months.

Her report went to Joe Ortiz, the state corrections chief in 2005.

It changed nothing.

Ortiz, who has retired, doesn't recall what O'Keefe wrote.

"I really remember nothing about the report she may have filed," he said. "I read so many reports."

He said his support for the new prison was driven at the time by overcrowding in the state prison system, along with alarming prison population forecasts.

If those had been correct, "we could have built a 1,200-bed prison every year," he said.

The state won the lawsuit against the prison-hospital bill, and site work began in 2008.

When the prison was built, a new fight erupted over a corrections department request for money to use it.

In a March 19, 2010, "fact sheet," the department cited a growing number of assaults by inmates on each other and on prison staff, a growing number of lockdowns and a growing number of incidents requiring the use of force.

The fact sheet also claimed that Colorado had the 18th-lowest "administrative segregation" rate of 41 reporting states. But it did so by comparing the numbers of solitary confinement prisoners in Colorado with the numbers of "maximum custody" prisoners in other states.

The problem with that comparison? Maximum custody prisoners may have cellmates.

An independent state agency, the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, disputed the corrections department numbers. Doug Wilson, the state public defender, recalled a cantankerous Joint Budget Committee meeting in 2010, at which he was accused of denigrating a fellow state agency.

Did he think the corrections department was deceiving legislators?

"Absolutely," he said.

Payments still required

This year, a new Joint Budget Committee agreed to close the new prison.

Boulder Rep. Claire Levy, a Democratic sponsor of the bill closing it, recalled how Zavaras, the corrections chief when the prison opened, told her there was nothing wrong with Colorado's solitary confinement practices.

"He gave me the patronizing, 'There, there, let me assure you, you earn your way in and you can earn your way out.' He repeated that phrase," she said.

But when she looked at prison records, "it appeared there were a lot of inmates who spent years in administrative segregation," she said.

"I wasn't giving her the party line," Zavaras said. Aside from death row inmates who go directly to solitary confinement, "everybody else earned their way in. There was a process."

The payments for the closed prison are similar to the terms of a home mortgage loan. In this case, the mortgage holders are investors who will get paid until 2021. According to Steve Allen of the Joint Budget Committee staff, construction and interest costs will total $208,098,041.

Norma Anderson, the senator who sponsored the bill to finance the prison in 2003, said recently that she doesn't care if Colorado puts more people in solitary confinement than other states, because "you don't have as many riots in your prison or your guards killed. Now if you leave them there for years, that's a little different."

Asked if she considered 18 months to two years acceptable, she said, "That, to me, is too long."

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