GUEST

Private prisons are vital to Bent and Crowley County communities

Cleave Simpson

As the newly elected senator for District 35, which includes Bent and Crowley counties, I am pleased that our local paper has taken an interest in the No. 1 employer of both counties, the private prison correctional facilities that our communities worked hard to secure in collaboration with the state of Colorado 30 years ago. Active engagement by the community with the state delivered these assets to both the community and the state of Colorado. The correctional facilities provide a necessary service to our state, offer employment opportunities to our citizens and provide reliable tax revenue to our communities.

The article alluded to an ethical dilemma, but missed the recurring dilemma folks in rural Colorado deal with routinely; urban legislators' well intentioned policy that fails to accurately take into account the real-life impacts to the people and livelihoods of our communities.

Last year legislators introduced a bill to shut down the two correctional facilities in Bent and Crowley counties without regard to the devastation such action would have on our communities. Through significant work and effort by the communities and representatives of southeastern Colorado, legislators agreed to modify the bill and instead of seeking closure alternatively to hire experts in the field to evaluate the impacts of such an action.

So, what did the experts say? You probably already know the answer — shutting down these correctional facilities would be devastating to southeast Colorado’s counties, towns and communities. The experts found that these correctional facilities should not be shut down and that they are an important asset to the State and to our communities.

The expert economist’s evaluation found; “The combined total economic output in 2019 within Crowley, Bent, and Otero counties from the Crowley and Bent County Correctional Facilities was $25,880,100 which includes $19,825,200 in earnings and represents 341 full-time equivalent jobs”.

Bent and Crowley are ethnically diverse and economically repressed communities. Our children already suffer from social injustices and they will only be thrown deeper into poverty by the loss of their parents' jobs and reduced educational opportunities due to financial cuts in school budgets should these facilities be closed. Imagine what these communities and the region would be like without these institutions that keep folks employed, funds emergency services, operate schools and keep main-street businesses open and thriving. Real life catastrophe!

CGI, the national experts in prison utilization, cautioned the state about making significant changes in prison utilization and found that the Level III facilities (like the Bent and Crowley Private prisons) provide much flexibility to the overall prison system. With an expectation of the state's population nearly doubling by 2050, closing down these facilities now or in the near future would seem to lack foresight and vision. The likelihood of the state needing fewer options and space seems unlikely.

You may know, a component of the study was a “town hall” where local citizens had the opportunity to give the Bent and Crowley commissioners their view on the two facilities. With about 180 people in attendance at the two meetings, only four expressing concerns with private prison facilities in general. Overwhelmingly our citizens recognized how integral these correctional facilities are to our communities and the state of Colorado.

Finally, the study recognized the continuing challenges in supporting local economic development and outreach in rural southeastern Colorado. Our communities face an abundance of infrastructure challenges including electrical capacity, broadband access and limited water supplies.

These privately owned and operated correctional facilities are under the direction and control of the Colorado Department of Correction (DOC) and ultimately Gov. Jared Polis. They must comply with all the health and safety requirements for state prisoners that the Colorado Department of Corrections determine, as all Colorado prisons should and do. Staffing levels are determined by DOC based on the security level of the prison. Further, the Bent and Crowley facilities offer diverse programs to prepare the prisoners to become productive citizens upon their release. Our prisons save the state money that can then be redirected to our schools or health care if the leadership in Denver so wishes.

I understand how integral these two correctional facilities are to our communities and the state of Colorado and will continue to fight for them and the residents of Senate District 35.

Cleave Simpson is a Colorado senator representing District 35.