If You Build it, They Won't Come

We can discuss the fate of CSP II -- Colorado's newest high-tech, state-of-the-art, solitary confinement (administrative segregation) prison. It cost several hundred million dollars. We've used a small part for one year and are about to mothball it. It will likely never again be used for any purpose.

In the 1980s and 1990s Colorado, like most of the rest of the country, doubles prison sentences, then doubles them again. Prison population explodes; a bonanza for the private prison industry. As fast as they build them, the industry fills their facilities with low and moderate risk inmates. They don't want, and Colorado won't give them, high risk prisoners.

By my first year in the legislature, 2003, we need a new administrative segregation prison. But in the midst of a recession, there's no money. Certificates of Participation ride to the rescue. These allow the State to effectively borrow money without voter approval. Theoretically the State, at any time, can give the prison to the lender and walk away. No state has ever done it. They'd never again have access to a COP.

To get his legislative votes, our governor cleverly marries unlikely bedfellows. Tough on crime Republicans want a prison to lock folks up and throw away the key. Education-loving Democrats want to build out the CU Med School Fitzsimmons - Anschutz campus. The two projects are combined into one COP. The campus has a tuition revenue stream to pay off its share of the COP. The prison doesn't. I can't see a way to make the payments and vote no. The bill passes anyway.

After several years of litigation, the state builds the campus and prison. Meanwhile crime rates drop and the legislature timidly rationalizes a few sentences. We no longer need maximum security cells. We now need prison psychiatric services for the folks incarcerated due to inadequate outside mental health treatment.

If we had the money we could hire some of the psych folks coming out of Anschutz.