DALLAS - Colorado needs to spend $800 million over the next five years to expand its prison capacity, including construction of a major facility at a site to be determined, Department of Corrections executive director Ari Zavaras told lawmakers.

Winning approval for such an ambitious plan could prove difficult in an election year in which the economy is weakening, officials noted. The state's last financing of a prison using $171 million in certificates of participation was delayed for three years by a court suit challenging the debt. The department finally broke ground on the 948-unit prison in Canon City last August.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, chairs the General Assembly's Capital Development Committee. Bacon said the state should continue to use COPs for new prison projects, since they do not need voter approval and voter approval is extremely unlikely. Colorado does not issue general obligation debt.

Amid the economic turmoil following 9/11 and the tech bust in 2001, Colorado has relied increasingly on private prisons to handle the overflow from the state prisons. Contracts with the private operators require that the state send only the least violent offenders to the private facilities, said CDOC spokeswoman Katherin Sanguinetti.

Zavaras, now in his second tenure as head of CDOC, warned lawmakers in 2000 that the state should house no more than 20% of its inmates in private prisons to keep the populations manageable. Currently, 22% of Colorado inmates are in private prisons, and that will grow to 40% by 2012 if the state adds no more prisons, Zavaras said.

While the private prisons save construction costs, "when it comes to operating them there really isn't that much savings when you factor in everything," Zavaras told the committee.

Another concern is the increasing reliance on Corrections Corporation of America for private prison capacity. It already houses 90% of the state's private prison population.

Colorado will be 900 beds short by 2010, and nearly 5,000 short by 2013, CDOC estimates.

Under Zavaras' five-year plan, three southern Colorado prisons would be expanded, with Trinidad Correctional Facility becoming a mega-facility that would need 650 additional workers. Lawmakers approved spending $77.9 million to add 710 new beds to Trinidad in 2000, but construction costs since have tripled. The new plan calls for spending $302 million to add 2,057 beds to Trinidad.

With the expansion Trinidad would become larger than the state's only mega-prison, Sterling Correctional Facility, which has 2,445 beds and 824 workers.

Zavaras' plan would also expand prisons in Pueblo and Crowley by more than 630 beds.

The Department of Corrections plans to reorganize its capacity for mentally ill inmates, adding 250 beds, but the $10 million project needs legislative approval.

A proposed new mega-prison on as yet undesignated site would be constructed over three years starting in 2011 and be as large as those in Sterling and Trinidad. The project, which would add about 800 jobs, would cost $341 million and about $62 million a year to operate.

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