By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
A coalition opposed to a $10.8 million proposal to open one of three towers at Colorado State Prison II is calling on the powerful Joint Budget Committee today to reject the proposal supported by the Department of Corrections and Gov. Bill Ritter.
Criminal defense attorneys, mental health advocates and justice reform proponents say now is not the time to be approving additional funding for new prison beds — not when the state has already cut over $2 billion in the current fiscal year and is looking at another $1.5 billion in cuts in the upcoming year.
The JBC is expected to weigh the $10.8 million proposal today.
As part of Ritter’s latest $340 million budget-balancing proposal unveiled in February, the governor is calling for opening 33 percent, or 316 beds, of the new Colorado State Penitentiary II. Supporters of the proposal point to a string of violent incidents caused by some of the state’s most violent and destructive prisoners who are being housed in regular prisons.
The new tower would house some of the state’s most violent offenders, with inmates locked up about 23 hours a day.
Proponents of the proposal point out that DOC services and facilities have been cut by $14.8 million as part of recent budget-balancing measures, making the issue a matter of public safety.
At a news conference last week, Corrections officers pointed out that there have been three inmate murders over the last several months. They also pointed to a Corrections officer who had her throat slashed by an inmate at Limon Correctional Facility and another Corrections officer who was murdered at Limon — all within the last decade.
But critics say housing the state’s most violent offenders in one unit is a poor fiscal and social move. They say increasing vocational programs and so-called wrap-around services for parolees is a better use of money. The state recently backed out of $3 million in vocational programs and $1.8 million in wrap-around services when the economic downturn intensified and budget shortfalls increased.
“It is counterintuitive and counterproductive to cut successful, research-based programs that promote productivity and safety both within prison and after release,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Katherine Sanguinetti, spokeswoman for the DOC, says those educational programs were not actually cut, because the programs had yet to start.
“No actual services that we currently have in place are being cut,” she said. “We’re not actually decreasing any of our programs or services in those areas.”
Meanwhile, the state’s recidivism rate has actually increased slightly since 2006 to 53.4 percent. Sanguinetti says that is a result of budget cuts in 2002 during the last recession that cut DOC services and staff. Parolees hitting the world in 2006 and 2007 had less access to educational and drug and alcohol treatment programs as a result, she said.
Critics of opening new beds at CSP II say if the DOC is truly concerned about public safety, then they’ll increase mental health services and stop housing inmates with mental health issues in restrictive environments.
“Colorado needs to stop depending on long-term solitary confinement as a correctional tool,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU in Colorado. “It is too expensive, it does nothing to prepare prisoners for their eventual return to their communities, and it has been condemned by human rights advocates as cruel and unusual punishment, especially for prisoners with serious mental illness.”
The coalition states that 37 percent of inmates housed in so-called administrative segregation units are offenders with a mental health condition. The group believes such inmates should be housed in a general population environment with a higher ratio of inmates to mental health workers.
But Sanguinetti says the issue is a balancing act for DOC officials.
“The offenders that need to be in those high-security beds, they make the whole system unsafe, and in order for treatment to be effective, you have to feel safe in your environment,” she said. “Part of that treatment and those recidivism efforts being effective is getting the right offender in the right bed.”