COLORADO SPRINGS — The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) released a new report that provides an in-depth look at where inmates in Colorado state prisons come from.

Using redistricting data, the report found that the largest number of imprisoned people in Colorado come from the state’s largest cities: Denver, Aurora, and Colorado Springs. Surprisingly, a handful of less populous and more rural counties — like Alamosa, Bent, and Logan counties — and smaller cities, including Alamosa, Sterling, and Pueblo, have high imprisonment rates as well. This suggests that people all over Colorado are affected by the state’s reliance on mass incarceration.

  • Counties with the highest state prison incarceration rates are:
    • Alamosa (577 per 100,000 residents)
    • Pueblo (472 per 100,000 residents)
    • Bent (465 per 100,000 residents)
  • For comparison, San Juan and Mineral counties have the lowest prison incarceration rates, with no residents in prison.
  • The counties with the most people in state prison at the time of the 2020 census are:
    • Denver (2,712)
    • El Paso (2,378)
    • Adams (1,599)

The report not only shows which cities inmates call home but also how incarceration rates correlate with a variety of negative outcomes. These include higher rates of asthma, depression, lower standardized test scores, reduced life expectancy and more.

“…This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” said Emily Widra, Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “… We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”

According to the study, mass incarceration impacts communities in all corners of the state but disproportionately impacts communities of color.

“This seminal report is both appalling and not surprising as over-policing and mass incarceration has targeted low-income communities and communities of color for generations,” said Christie Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “We aren’t facing a crisis of crime, we are facing a crisis of neglect and lack of investment in communities of color and we hope this report will mobilize impacted residents and their elected officials to embrace community development as a public safety strategy.”

The data and report were made possible by the state’s landmark 2020 law ending prison gerrymandering. It requires state and local governments to count incarcerated people as residents of their home communities rather than their prison locations when drawing legislative districts. Colorado is one of more than a dozen states and 200 local governments that have addressed the practice of “prison gerrymandering,” which gives disproportional political clout to legislative districts in which prisons are located, at the expense of other districts. In total, roughly half the country now lives in a jurisdiction that has taken action to address prison gerrymandering.

Findings from the report

County trends

Incarceration is particularly concentrated in the two largest Colorado cities: Denver and Colorado Springs, which respectively have 2,712 and 1,829 residents imprisoned. In addition, Aurora — the third-largest city — has over 1,000 residents in state prisons. That means these three cities have imprisonment rates of over 300 per 100,000 residents.

The most populated counties in Colorado send the most and a disproportionately large number of people to prison.

The five most populous counties in the state — El Paso, Denver, Arapahoe, Jefferson, and Adams — are home to over 65% of the state’s imprisoned population (over 9,000 imprisoned people), but are home to only 55% of the state’s total population.

Alone, Denver County — is home to 20% of the imprisoned population in the state (over 2,700 people) but only 12% of the state’s total population. Even compared to other counties with relatively high populations, this county is an outlier. For example, Denver County has two times as many residents as Douglas County but is home to 14 times as many people in state prison

A closer look at Colorado Springs

A map of the number of incarcerated people from each census tract in the city that is overlaid with the Transforming Safety boundary map of the neighborhood. The report hopes to illustrate why investing in particular communities to break the cycle of incarceration is important.

Colorado Springs sends a larger portion of its population to state prisons than most cities in Colorado and a larger portion than the other large cities of Denver and Aurora. Within Colorado Springs, however, a disproportionate number come from just one neighborhood: Southeast Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs is of particular interest because the city has already recognized the importance of reducing incarceration in Southeast Colorado Springs. The city has identified this community as one of four recipients of the Transforming Safety Community Grants initiative in Colorado that supports community-led efforts to promote public safety.

Not all small, rural counties are imprisoning residents at the high rates that we see in Alamosa and Bent. Twelve counties — all with populations less than 9,000 — have less than 10 residents in prisons. So while imprisonment rates vary across the state, it is clear that the counties locking up the most residents in state prison are the most populous counties, containing the largest cities.

Neighborhood trends

Denver

map comparing number of incarcerated residents of two neighborhoods in Denver

According to PPI, the racial divide runs deep when it comes to incarceration rates in Denver. In neighborhoods with high concentrations of people of color, primarily Black and Latino, larger portions of the populations are imprisoned.

Several of these neighborhoods are clustered around Interstate 70 in northern Denver: Northeast Park Hill, Elyria-Swansea, Cole, and Globeville. These communities tend to have higher rates of poverty and a larger portion of residents who are Black or Latino than other Denver neighborhoods.

Residents of Elyria-Swansea are more than 80% Latino and approximately 33% live in poverty. The neighborhood has third-highest incarceration rate at 1,176 per 100,000, according to the study.

PPI says that high rates of imprisonment in these areas, like high rates of poverty, are likely a symptom of the historical divestment that left residents with limited access to crucial community resources. These include community health services, grocery stores, housing support, job training services and immigration resources.

Another cluster of high-incarceration Denver neighborhoods is in the western part of the city. Sun Valley, a small neighborhood on the west side of Interstate 25 has the highest neighborhood imprisonment rate in the city: 2,170 per 100,000 residents.

Compared to neighborhoods on the eastern side of I-25, Sun Valley’s high imprisonment rate is even more startling: in Washington Park West, the imprisonment rate is less than 100 per 100,000. This means that across the highway, residents of Sun Valley are over 20 times more likely to be imprisoned than residents of nearby Washington Park West.

Aurora

Aurora, the state’s third-largest city, has a much larger population of Black residents than the state of Colorado as a whole. In 2021, Colorado’s residents were only 5% Black, while Aurora’s residents were 17% Black. Research shows that policing tends to be concentrated in neighborhoods composed of people of color, in particular, Black people.

This is true in Aurora, where 46% of Black residents have had at least one police interaction over the past 3 years, compared to less than 25% of white residents, according to the report.

PPI cites a 2021 report from the Colorado Attorney General that revealed “observed law enforcement outcomes for people of color in Aurora differ significantly from those experienced by their white counterparts. These data — particularly for Black individuals — are deeply troubling.”

Incarceration rates also tend to follow neighborhood divisions in Aurora. Over one-third of Aurora residents in state prison hail from just five of the city’s more than 90 neighborhoods, according to the report. All of the high-incarceration rate neighborhoods located in the northwestern part of the city, are traditionally under-resourced and have the largest populations of non-white residents in the city.

The disparities between these four neighborhoods and other areas of the city are staggering: North Aurora has an imprisonment rate of 791 per 100,000 which is more than six times higher than the rate of imprisonment in the Heather Gardens neighborhood (127 per 100,000). This is not only true when comparing North Aurora and Heather Gardens. North Aurora’s imprisonment rate is more than six times higher than the rate of 35 other Aurora neighborhoods.

With this context, the study makes it clear that specific neighborhoods, like North Aurora, face the twin challenges of inadequate investment in quality of life services and infrastructure. Individuals are disproportionately affected by over-policing and mass incarceration in Aurora.

What this means for neighborhoods with high incarceration rates

Those familiar with racial disparities in the criminal legal system may not find these high county imprisonment rates surprising. Latino and Hispanic communities, and Native American communities, are overrepresented in the state prison population.

Members of these communities disproportionately call Alamosa and Bent counties home. For example, Alamosa County’s population is 48% Hispanic or Latino and Bent County’s population is 32% Hispanic or Latino, compared to the statewide population which is 22% Hispanic or Latino.

In addition, Alamosa and Bent counties have higher percentages of Native American and American Indian residents: 5.5% of Alamosa County residents and almost 4% of Bent County residents are Native American and American Indian, compared to 2% of the statewide Colorado population.

While all communities are missing some of their members to imprisonment, in places where large numbers of adults — parents, workers, voters — are locked up, incarceration has a broader community impact. A large number of adults drained from a relatively small number of geographical areas seriously impacts the health and stability of the families and communities left behind.