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Two private prisons in rural southeast Colorado — both operated by the company CoreCivic — are grappling with high turnover rates among their staff.
To address this, the Department of Corrections wants more state money to pay CoreCivic. Lawmakers voted Friday to support that request.
In 2021, DOC and CoreCivic data show a correctional officer turnover rate of 107% at the Bent County prison and 126% at the Crowley County prison, according to a Friday memo for state lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee, prepared by committee staff.
“This means that the number of separated correctional officers exceeds the average number of officers at those facilities; more people are starting and quitting than are employed there,” the memo states.
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The DOC requested $1.09 million in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and $4.32 million in the next fiscal year to raise the per diem rate at the two private prison facilities. Under DOC’s request, the rates would increase incrementally — by $3.40 this year, and then by another $1.13 next year, bringing the per diem rate to $63.32. (That’s the rate that the state pays CoreCivic per inmate, per day.)
Joint Budget Committee staff recommended raising the per diem rate by $4.53 immediately instead of doing it in increments. This proposal would cost $1.45 million in the current fiscal year and $4.32 million next fiscal year.
Lawmakers on the JBC voted 5-0 on Friday to accept the staff recommendation, meaning the funding increase will be part of budget legislation that the entire General Assembly must vote on this spring. Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, was excused for the vote.
Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who serves on the Joint Budget Committee, asked JBC staff for some follow-up information about the training of correctional officers getting hired at private prisons.
“If I had a turnover rate like that, I would really be concerned about the quality and training of the individuals that I hire,” Rankin said.
If I had a turnover rate like that, I would really be concerned about the quality and training of the individuals that I hire.
– Sen. Bob Rankin
The rate increase will allow CoreCivic to pay its correctional officers a starting wage of $22 per hour, according to the DOC. That’s still $2 less than the starting wage for state employees.
But while the pay increase would probably somewhat help the turnover situation, there are other reasons why CoreCivic is having a hard time retaining its employees, said Justin Brakke, senior legislative budget and policy analyst on JBC staff.
“Housing could be an issue,” Brakke told lawmakers during Friday’s hearing. “Work conditions could play into it. There’s a lot of different factors.”
In an email, CoreCivic spokesperson Matthew Davio pointed out that staffing challenges were not unique to the Crowley County and Bent County prisons.
“Staffing correctional facilities is a challenge that public and private facilities alike face in Colorado and across the country,” Davio wrote. “We’re taking significant steps to attract and retain talented people through various means — to counter the current employment challenges so many employers are facing throughout the country.”
State-run prison facilities do have their own staffing issues. The Department of Corrections reported a turnover rate of 22.9% in November 2021, according to a December presentation to the Joint Budget Committee.
CoreCivic has invested in commercial advertising, participated in public events, and attempted to recruit community members through job boards, military bases, local colleges, social media and local hiring events, Davio said.
“Corrections is a challenging career,” he wrote. “In order to keep facilities safe, candidates must be able to pass background screenings. COVID restrictions to keep our staff and those in our care safe often add to the staffing challenge.”
CoreCivic offers benefits including health insurance, a 401(k) matching savings and retirement plan, paid time off and education opportunities. The company’s leadership and human resources teams make an effort to talk with staff about any issues or concerns they may have, Davio added.
Tax revenue from private prisons
Recently, a movement to close private, for-profit prisons grew out of progressives’ desire for the state to shift its approach to criminal justice — away from locking people up for long sentences, and toward reducing recidivism by providing people in prison with the services they needed to safely reenter the community. In a world where rehabilitation was emphasized over incarceration, criminal justice reform advocates argued it didn’t make sense for the state to keep supporting an industry that benefits from filling prison beds.
Private prison company GEO Group abruptly closed the Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in Colorado Springs in March 2020, after Gov. Jared Polis said he wanted to close the facility later that year.
A 2021 study commissioned by state lawmakers concluded that Colorado’s prison population should be maintained and that all remaining facilities should stay open, according to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat. The study stemmed from 2020 legislation.
Colorado’s rural communities heavily depend on the tax revenue from the remaining two private prisons, the 2021 study found. In Crowley County, the correctional facility generated 44% of property tax revenue and 42% of school district taxes. The Bent County Correctional Facility generated 18.3% of Bent County’s property taxes and 25% of Las Animas School District taxes.
Brakke’s analysis for the Joint Budget Committee also found that if the two prisons were to close, the state would not have enough medium-security beds at other facilities where it could move the inmates.
“The private prisons are fully managed by Core Civic,” DOC spokesperson Annie Skinner said in an email, when asked about the responsibilities of DOC versus CoreCivic in relation to hiring and retention of employees at private prisons. “We do have a Private Prison Monitoring Unit that works directly with those facilities.”
When asked about how the DOC had addressed staffing concerns at the private prisons, Skinner mentioned the per diem rate increase as well as retention bonuses for CoreCivic staff. The department is using $1.3 million in federal funds, from coronavirus relief legislation that Congress passed last year, to pay retention bonuses to staff at the Bent County and Crowley County facilities.
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