BENT COUNTY — Commissioners in Bent and Crowley counties held one of two meetings seeking public input this week on the impacts of prisons in their communities as part of a study required by a House bill that could potentially shut down private facilities.
Colorado House Bill 20-1019 deals with "measures to manage the state prison population" that could shut down privately owned prisons depending on the findings of the feasibility study statewide. Legislators asked local communities to work with "a nationally recognized research and consulting entity to study future prison bed needs in Colorado."
When the bill was first introduced, it called for the closure of private prisons by 2025 and it also called for a study, except it focused only on the impacts on communities when the prisons closed. Bent County Commissioner Kim MacDonnell said the current amended bill removed "the conclusion that private prisons would be closed" and expanded the study to look at the bigger picture. With the expansion of the study, she said the county has "lived to see another day" as of right now.
After being postponed in October, the two community feedback sessions are being held virtually as part of that feasibility study with Crowley County's hearing taking place Monday and Bent County's hearing taking place Tuesday, both happening at 5:30 p.m.
According to the bill, areas with a private prison are being asked to allow public input on the study that will include:
- An analysis of the economic and other impacts that potential prison closure would have on local governments and the wider community and recommendations on strategies to diversify the local economy
- A utilization analysis of all state and privately operated facilities and all other facilities that can be used for housing inmates
- An analysis of the feasibility of the department to obtain privately owned facilities or utilize unused state-owned buildings in Colorado
The public's input is just one component of the study, according to MacDonnell, and that the hearings will be significant component to the future.
Crowley County commissioners listened to residents and prison employees voice their input on the matter Monday evening.
"Every business we have is important and we rely on one another for financial success and when you take away an employer the size of the prison it would be huge," one person said during the virtual meeting.
The Bent County Correctional Facility is the largest economic driver in the town of Las Animas. CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, owns and operates the medium-security prison that opened in 1996 as the state's first private prison. The facility houses 1,466 inmates.
“It is Bent County’s largest taxpayer as far as property tax goes. It’s our largest municipal utility consumer, it’s our largest employer,” Bent Commissioner Chuck Netherton told News5 back in October.
Bent County has stated on its website that the closure of the facility could impact the county in various ways, such as the loss of sales tax revenue throughout the county and increased utility rates.
"One of the biggest points to us is nothing has changed. The state needed the beds and the county stepped up," MacDonnell said.
CoreCivic also owns and operates the medium-security Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs, which opened in 1998. The facility houses 1,894 inmates.
"Crowley County Correctional Facility provides stable employment not only for myself but for over 230 staff members at this time. This number doesn't even include the various contract staff that come in and out of our gates daily," an employee with the correctional facility said during Monday's meeting.
A 2017 study prepared by Crowley County & Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development identified the possibility of private prison closures as one of three threats to the local economy. The same study also states, "Crowley County is working on expanding on current resources and creating new jobs, which will diversify the community and relieve the dependency on the prisons for revenues."
The study these virtual public hearings are a part of will be presented to the judiciary committees of the Colorado Senate and House during the SMART Act hearings being held during the 2021 session sometime in January. The Colorado Department of Corrections operates Arkansas Valley Correctional in Ordway which has a capacity of 1,007 inmates.
For more information on how you can join the virtual public input meeting or how you can submit your comment, click here.
Bent County leaders worry potential prison closure could devastate local economy
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