EDITORIAL: Legislators must stop Colorado from hiding prisoners like James Holmes in secret places

Hickenlooper fails to understand that resorting to hiding humans is not only the wrong answer to the prison and prisoner safety dilemma, it’s the worst answer

There’s little doubt now that Colorado state lawmakers must step in to fix the dangerous problem of state corrections officials hiding more than 100 prison convicts, including Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.

It’s been more than a year since the public learned that Holmes, one of the state’s most notorious murderers, had been smuggled out of the state prison where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life.

He was sent to a secret location because prison officials believed that Holmes was unsafe in Colorado and at risk of being injured by other prisoners.

Last week, 9News KUSA broadcast the results from their investigation, revealing that more than 100 other convicts, including murderers and rapists, have also been traded off to other states, keeping secret their transfer and location.

There are numerous levels of wrong with this.

First and foremost, it signals that Colorado prisons are so unsafe that we must harbor inmates in secret, not just one but dozens, because keeping them in what should be secure conditions puts their lives and the lives of prison employees at risk.

If state prisons are unable to handle what is essentially Job One for so many prisoners, what else are they unable to handle? According to this investigation and previous new reports, other states don’t have this problem.

Just as important are the clear, legal rights of victims of these convicts. Under state law, crime victims must have access to information about convicts’ locations and prison status. This hide-the-convict strategy, apparently backed and defended by Gov. John Hickenlooper, is a direct violation of that important state law.

State officials say that Colorado law permits prisons to “temporarily” hide inmates. It’s clear from the 9News story that none of this can be stretched to look temporary. It’s nothing more than the state defying the rights of victims and state law.

Just as dangerous is the notion that state officials have empowered themselves to hide not just what must be public information, but human beings as well. The very idea that the government can harbor and hide people, even criminals, in secret is anathema to American standards of human rights and dignity. Allowing Colorado to behave like Russia or China must set off alarm bells for all of us.

The inference here is that Hickenlooper and others expect the public to trust the state to ensure that a prisoner and the public are safe by hiding these people. Good government comes from transparency and accountability, not trust.

If the cost of justice and prisoner safety is so high that state officials can’t accommodate it, then state lawmakers must provide the resources to not only force Colorado to adhere to the law, but to do the right and decent thing.

State officials have balked at reversing this wrong and dangerous practice, which means legislators now must correct the problem.

“We’re not doing this because it’s fun,” Hickenlooper told 9News. “These are people’s lives. Our prison guards, they’ve got families and wives and we take it very seriously to keep them safe.”

Setting aside Hickenlooper’s pithy response, safety is what we’re all after. But Hickenlooper fails to understand that resorting to hiding people is not only the wrong answer to the prison and prisoner safety dilemma, it’s the worst answer.

Legislators must write a veto-proof bill that makes clear prisons will have the resources to keep prisoners and prison employees safe and not squirreled away at the whim of prison officials who neither have to account to the public why, when or where they move prisoners into secret hiding places.