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How Many Prisons Are In Colorado?

The state of Colorado has one of the most extensive prison systems in the United States. As of 2023, there are over 20 state and private prisons located throughout Colorado. These facilities are operated by the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) and house over 18,000 inmates.

Colorado’s prison population has exploded in recent decades. Since 1990, the number of inmates has more than tripled. This growth has put a significant strain on the state’s correctional system and facilities. Most state prisons are overcrowded and understaffed.

In this article, we will provide an in-depth look at the state of prisons in Colorado. We will examine the number of facilities, inmate demographics, capacity, overcrowding, staffing, budgets, and major incidents. This analysis will provide key insights into how Colorado’s massive prison system functions and the challenges it currently faces.

History of Incarceration and Prisons in Colorado

The use of incarceration and prisons in Colorado dates back to the earliest days of the state. Some key events and developments include:

  • 1859 – The first territorial prison was established in Colorado after gold was discovered and population boomed. It was a primitive facility located in Canyon City.
  • 1868 – The Colorado territorial legislature approved funding to construct a new prison in Cañon City. This facility opened in 1871.
  • 1876 – Colorado gained statehood and its prison population stood at just 60 inmates.
  • 1930s – Many state prisons were constructed including Buena Vista Correctional Complex and Limon Correctional Facility.
  • 1990s – Harsher sentencing laws led to a rapid expansion of Colorado’s prison population. New prisons were built but overcrowding became a major issue.
  • 1990 – Colorado prisons held just over 7,000 inmates.
  • 2000 – The prison population doubled to over 14,000 inmates.
  • 2016 – A new state law reduced sentences for certain drug crimes to alleviate overcrowding.
  • 2023 – Colorado prisons now hold over 18,000 inmates across 22 state and private facilities.

This history shows how Colorado’s prison system has grown enormously in recent decades in reaction to population growth, stricter laws, and the War on Drugs. Managing this vast incarcerated population continues to be a major challenge.

Current Number of Prisons in Colorado

Currently, there are 22 state and private prisons located throughout Colorado. Here is a breakdown:

  • 10 major state-run prisons
  • 3 smaller specialized state prisons
  • 4 private prisons
  • 4 community corrections transition facilities
  • 1 federal prison

The state-run facilities house the bulk of Colorado’s inmates. They are medium and maximum security prisons designed for long-term incarceration.

The private prisons are operated by for-profit companies contracted by the state. They take overflow inmates from crowded state facilities.

The community corrections transition facilities help inmates nearing parole to reintegrate back into society.

The federal prison houses inmates convicted of federal crimes in Colorado.

Below is an overview of the largest state-run prisons in Colorado:

Largest State-Run Prisons

  • Colorado State Penitentiary – Houses over 700 of Colorado’s most dangerous maximum security inmates. Located in Cañon City.
  • Sterling Correctional Facility – Large prison with capacity for over 2,500 inmates. Medium and maximum security inmates.
  • Fremont Correctional Facility – Another massive Cañon City prison with 1,400 inmates at medium security levels.
  • Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility – Has nearly 1,500 medium security inmates. Located in Ordway.
  • Buena Vista Correctional Complex – Composed of 6 units and houses over 1,600 inmates.
  • Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility – Medium security prison in Cañon City with over 1,900 inmates.
  • Limon Correctional Facility – Holds just over 1,000 medium security inmates.
  • La Vista Correctional Facility – Women’s prison with space for nearly 700 female inmates.
  • Trinidad Correctional Facility – 500 bed high security prison.
  • Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center – Intake center where new inmates are processed.
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These 10 larger state prisons have a combined capacity of over 11,000 inmates. With smaller facilities added, the entire Colorado state prison system has room for approximately 14,000 inmates in total.

Current Inmate Demographics and Statistics

As of June 2022, the Colorado Department of Corrections system housed a total of 16,822 inmates. Here is a demographic breakdown of the prison population:

  • Gender – 15,027 males (89%); 1,795 females (11%)
  • Race – 4,999 White (30%); 5,256 Hispanic (31%); 4,407 African American (26%); 1,329 Other (8%)
  • Age – 10,230 under 40 years old (61%); 6,592 over 40 years old (39%)
  • Sentence – 9,084 serving 1-10 years (54%); 7,738 serving over 10 years (46%)

Some other key inmate statistics:

  • Over 7,000 inmates are serving time for violent crimes such as murder, assault, and robbery.
  • Around 9,000 inmates are repeat offenders who have been incarcerated multiple times before.
  • Approximately 8,000 inmates are released and over 6,000 inmates are admitted every year.
  • 75% of inmates do not have a high school diploma or GED.

Prison Capacity and Overcrowding

With nearly 17,000 current inmates, Colorado’s prison system is operating at 117% of its maximum capacity.

  • The system was only designed to safely hold around 14,000 inmates in total.
  • But state prisons have exceeded maximum capacity for over a decade.
  • Most major facilities are holding 150% to 180% of their intended inmate populations.
  • To alleviate extreme overcrowding, around 3,000 Colorado inmates are housed in out-of-state prisons.

This chronic overcrowding creates unsafe and inhumane conditions for both correctional officers and inmates. Cells meant for one inmate often hold three. Programs, medication, and recreation access are limited. Violence and mental health issues also increase in overcrowded prisons.

Building more prisons is not feasible with Colorado’s budget constraints. However, sentencing reforms and enhanced rehabilitation programs could help lower inmate populations to more manageable levels.

Prison Staffing Levels

With inmate populations stretched far beyond capacity, Colorado’s prisons are also understaffed. Key staffing statistics:

  • There are approximately 2,100 security staff across the entire CDOC system.
    • This includes correctional officers, case managers, and parole officers.
  • The inmate-to-staff ratio is nearly 8-to-1.
    • This is much higher than the recommended 5-to-1 ratio.
  • Most prisons only have around 60% of the security staff they need.
  • Specialized healthcare and programming positions also tend to be vacant.
  • Low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions make it difficult to recruit and retain personnel.
  • Staffing shortages directly impact prison safety and rehabilitation efforts.

Adding more correctional and medical staff would greatly improve conditions within Colorado’s overburdened prisons. But higher salaries and expanded hiring initiatives would be needed to attract talented workers. Until then, prisoners will continue to outnumber the staff responsible for them.

Prison Budget and Costs

Managing its extensive prison system consumes a huge portion of Colorado’s state budget. Some key numbers related to prison costs:

  • The CDOC had an annual budget of $828 million for 2022-2023. This accounts for 10% of total state spending.
  • It costs around $41,000 per year to house a Colorado inmate. With 17,000 prisoners, that’s over $690 million annually just for incarceration.
  • About 85% of the corrections budget goes to staff salaries, medical care, and daily prison operations.
  • The state also spent $112 million in 2022 to expand prison capacity and improve facilities.
  • Experts estimate Colorado taxpayers pay $550 million per year to imprison drug offenders alone.
  • Reducing inmate populations could save the state approximately $150 million annually.
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While expenses are high, most agree Colorado must invest in reforming rather than expanding its strained prison system. Improving rehabilitation and parole grant programs paired with modest facility upgrades offer the best path forward.

Major Incidents and Controversies

With chronic problems like overcrowding and understaffing, Colorado’s troubled prison system has seen various disruptive incidents occur in recent years. Some notable events include:

  • 2012 – Gang violence erupted at Sterling Correctional Facility leading to a months-long lockdown. Several inmates were stabbed before order was restored.
  • 2016 – Three correctional officers were killed by an inmate at Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. The longest prison hostage standoff in Colorado’s history ensued.
  • 2017 – Denver women’s prison had the highest reported incidence of sexual assaults on inmates in the country. This highlighted unsafe conditions for female prisoners.
  • 2021 – Over 500 inmates were transferred out of Buena Vista prison after rampant meth use led to three overdose deaths. Drug smuggling and use continues to be an issue.
  • 2022 – The brutal murder of a correctional officer by inmates at Limon Correctional Facility renewed focus on the need to enhance prison security and safety.

While some incidents are inevitable, Colorado must address root causes like understaffing, overcrowding, and contraband smuggling to better prevent prison disorder, violence, and loss of life.

Ongoing Efforts for Reform and Improvements

In recent years, Colorado has implemented various policy changes aimed at reforming prisons and improving inmate outcomes. But major systemic changes take years to positively impact ingrained problems. Some reform efforts include:

  • Reducing Solitary Confinement – New limits were placed on isolating inmates in segregated housing units. Solitary sentences can exacerbate mental illnesses.
  • Expanding Rehabilitation Programs – Vocational, addiction treatment and educational programs have been added to help inmates gain skills needed for re-entry into society and employment.
  • Increasing Parole Grant Rates – Granting parole to deserving inmates earlier in their sentences can alleviate overcrowding and lower recidivism. Approval rates have steadily increased.
  • Correctional Officer Training – New academy training and crisis intervention techniques help officers defuse conflicts and improve facility safety.
  • Body Scanners and Drug Dogs – Expanded searches and drug detection aim to keep contraband like drugs and weapons out of prisons.

While Colorado still has a long road ahead, these reforms and planned investments offer some hope the state can overcome its correctional system challenges. But it will require political will, budgetary commitment, and openness to new approaches.

Major Convictions of Colorado Inmates

Here is an overview of some of Colorado’s most notorious inmates and the crimes that landed them behind bars:

James Holmes

  • Convicted of killing 12 people and injuring 70 in a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora in 2012

“Justice is death!” – Outburst made by Holmes at his sentencing

Dexter Lewis

  • Stabbed five people to death at a Denver bar on Fero’s in 2012

“I don’t recall every detail of what happened that night” – Lewis still claiming blackouts from excessive drink and drugs

Chris Watts

  • Strangled his pregnant wife and smothered his two daughters in Frederick, CO in 2018

“I am guilty of taking the lives of my family” – Watts in a media interview before sentencing

Sir Mario Owens

  • Murdered a young couple in cold blood and attempted to have witnesses killed from prison. Javad Marshall-Fields was set to testify against Owens for an earlier murder before being targeted.

“Lies are being told on me, I’m being framed for murders I didn’t commit” – Claims of innocence by Owens

Scott Kimball

  • Serial killer convicted of four murders after being released from prison to act as an FBI informant. Killed witnesses and continued murdering more victims.

“I cannot change the past, I can only do my best to become part of the solution” – Apology letter from Kimball read at his sentencing

These five men are just a few of the thousands of dangerous criminals serving long sentences across Colorado’s prison system. While many claim innocence or mistaken identity, the majority of inmates are incarcerated for horrific acts of violence, theft, and drug trafficking.

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Here are answers to 5 of the most frequently asked questions about Colorado’s extensive prison system:

How many prisons are currently operating in Colorado?

There are currently 22 state and private prisons, along with various community corrections facilities, operating across Colorado. The state Department of Corrections runs 10 major complexes that house most inmates. There are also 4 private prisons, 4 community corrections centers, and 1 federal prison in the state.

What are visitation rules like at Colorado prisons?

Most Colorado prisons allow visitation sessions on weekends and holidays. Inmates in good standing can have 1 to 2 hour visits with approved family members and friends. Visitors must submit visitor forms and go through security checks. Strict dress codes and visitation rules aim to prevent contraband smuggling. Due to Covid-19, some facilities still limit or restrict visits.

How can you communicate with an inmate at a Colorado prison?

Sending letters is the main way to communicate with an incarcerated person in Colorado. Each prison has mail policies detailing allowed senders, content rules, packages, and correspondence procedures. Limited phone calls are also possible by adding money to an inmate’s phone account. Email options are currently restricted. Video visits may be offered for a fee at some locations.

Are all Colorado state prisons maximum security?

No, most state facilities incarcerate inmates at lower medium security levels. Minimum security prisons have become less common. High security solitary confinement is limited to disciplined inmates and those displaying dangerous behavior. Different units within large prison complexes often have varying security levels. But most inmates reside in medium security housing for their prison sentence.

How do Colorado prisons address gang activity and violence?

Gangs are a major concern within Colorado’s overcrowded prisons. Strict control methods, informants, and segregated housing help control organized gang activity and related violence. But understaffing makes violence hard to prevent. Many incidents still occur, often racially motivated between rival gangs and groups. Better funding to expand staff and improve conditions is key to further reducing prison gang influence and violence.


In conclusion, while many consider Colorado one of the most progressive forward-thinking states in America, it is still saddled with an enormously outdated, strained and inadequate prison system.

Decades of reactionary tough-on-crime policies led to overcrowded facilities filled far beyond capacity and with too few staff to safely operate them. Sub-par conditions, contraband issues, gang violence and unrest are ongoing problems.

However, continued reforms centered on rehabilitation and improved re-entry processes can help lower inmate populations to reasonable levels over time. Education, job training, mental health resources, addiction treatment and more rational sentencing laws will also benefit prisoners and corrections staff.

But it remains an uphill battle that will require years of sustained effort and spending. Until punitive mindsets can shift to support true rehabilitation, Colorado’s prisons will continue to fail inmates, waste taxpayer money, and make communities less safe.

With strong leadership and vision, Colorado can still serve as a model of progressive criminal justice reform. But there is no quick fix to undo the damage from 30 years of ineffective, reactionary policies that led to mass incarceration. It will take patience, compassion and a willingness to try new approaches to unravel the current dysfunctional state of the Colorado prison system.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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