Prison closures not needed, but Rifle’s is on short list

A study has found that Colorado’s prison population drop is tapering off and prison closures won’t be needed.

But the Rifle Correctional Center is on the list of facilities the study recommends be considered for shutdown if more conservative inmate population projections are assumed.

The preliminary findings were announced Thursday by the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting. The study, conducted by the CNA nonprofit research group and required by legislation last year, is scheduled for completion by month’s end.

If the study’s population projection is correct, the 3,200 beds already eliminated from the prison system since 2009 would be sufficient, the study found.

“Essentially the system’s operating pretty close to capacity. Given that, we see absolutely no reason to advocate any closures of facilities at this time based on where you’re at right now,” CNA principal researcher Karl Becker told the state legislature’s Joint Budget Committee on Thursday.

But if the state plans are based on smaller population projections, other facilities the study recommends for possible closure include the Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in El Paso County, and the Kit Carson, Fourmile and Skyline correctional centers.

It recommends closing only Cheyenne Mountain if it is assumed there will be a surplus of about 600 beds, and that the state begin with closing Cheyenne Mountain and Rifle in 2014, followed by the others later, if there’s an assumption of a surplus exceeding 2,100 beds.

The Delta Correctional Center is not on the list of those 
recommended for possible closure under such scenarios.

Lower admissions and crime rates have contributed to the state’s dropping inmate numbers in recent years, but recent growth in monthly population numbers is contributing to CNA’s expectation that the overall population is stabilizing.

The budget office plans to seek feedback from community leaders and the state Department of Corrections, and determine with the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee a schedule for completing a five-year prison plan.

“A different list of potential closures may be included in the five-year plan, but no decisions have been made at this time,” Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office said in a news release Thursday.

At meetings last week in Rifle, Delta and other communities with prisons in Colorado, local representatives stressed the importance of the facilities to their local economies.

Gynee Thomassen, president of the Delta Area Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday, “Those (Delta prison jobs) are great primary jobs for our community and our economy. The prisoners do a lot of public service work for the community and have just been invaluable. … I’m really glad to hear that they’re going to be there.”

Rifle City Council member Keith Lambert said it’s heartening to hear no closures are being recommended, and he believes the state prison count will be increasing at some point. But he also considers it unfortunate that the study suggests the 192-bed Rifle prison’s possible closure under a more conservative population scenario.

He said one thing that’s being overlooked is the prison’s accomplishments in reducing recidivism.

“If you’re preparing that population to make it on the outside, Rifle has a success rate for doing that. I’d like to see that continue,” he said.

But Becker said most studies show re-entry of inmates into society is made most effective by proximity to where an inmate will end up living, and Rifle is probably the farthest prison from most inmates’ civilian-life destinations.

More generally, Rifle’s remoteness creates logistical, support and transportation challenges, he said.

One consideration regarding a facility such as Rifle’s is its wildland firefighting team, which fights fires around the region. State Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, whose district includes Rifle, told the Joint Budget Committee that there’s an advantage to having such a team in a location where it can make a difference, and noted that the firefighters responded in just hours to the Ward Gulch Fire, which burned hundreds of acres just miles from the prison on Thursday.

“To me that’s a significant factor in the value of a location of a minimum-correction facility,” he said.


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