It's long, and it's important.
History Lesson #1
In 1829, William Bent headed west to join his older brother in the fur business. William was twenty years old, the son of a Missouri supreme court justice — and, like his brother Charlie, who would one day be the first governor of the New Mexico Territory, he soon fell in love with the lawless vastness that would become southern Colorado.
After he hid two Cheyenne from their archenemy, the Comanches, William became a trusted friend of the Cheyenne nation. Their chief, Black Kettle, called him Little White Man. At 26, Bent married a Cheyenne woman; after her death, he married her sister. He built a log stockade not far from what is now Pueblo and then, using laborers from Mexico, a sturdier adobe fort on the eastern plains, a haven for travelers along the Santa Fe Trail.
For several years, Bent's Fort hummed with trade. Wagon trains, Indians, soldiers and buffalo hunters all came to do business with Bent and his partner, Ceran St. Vrain. But as the pace of settlement increased, relations with the local tribes deteriorated — and so did commerce. In 1849, St. Vrain offered to sell the fort to the Army.
The offer came a decade too early. Within a few years, the Colorado gold rush would bring thousands of whites to the territory and increasing trouble with the Indians. There would be great need for an Army post along this stretch of the Santa Fe Trail — and great grief over actions staged from the new fort that would be built there. But in 1849 the government didn't see any reason to buy Bent's Fort. Some officials believed they could take over the place for nothing after the owners, bedeviled by hostile tribes, finally gave it up as a bad deal.
But Bent refused to give the Army his creation. Instead, he placed kegs of gunpowder along the adobe walls and blew up the whole shebang.
The Far Side of the Dollar
On November 15, 2001, a century and a half after Bent destroyed his fort, a group of federal, state and Bent County bureaucrats gathered less than twenty miles away, on the handsome 556-acre campus of Fort Lyon. The site had been an Army post, then a Navy sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, then a psychiatric hospital, then a chronic-care center operated by the Veterans Administration. Now, for the princely sum of one dollar, the feds were about to turn over Fort Lyon to the State of Colorado, which planned to transform the property into a special prison for elderly and mentally ill inmates.
Some observers described the transfer ceremony as "bittersweet," but any sweetness was hard to find. Then-governor Bill Owens sought an upbeat note, declaring that the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility "will make Colorado a safer place" and would be "a lot cheaper than building a prison from the ground up." A few old-timers in the crowd cracked wise about the kind of society that would turn a hospital for military vets into a rest home for geriatric felons. Locals wondered glumly if the job opportunities offered by a new prison, many of which would be filled by longtime Department of Corrections employees, could begin to make up for the lost federal jobs.
In its heyday, Fort Lyon had been a sprawling town unto itself, populated by more than a thousand patients. It had an Olympic swimming pool, a miniature golf course, tennis courts and an array of living quarters and other buildings dating back to the 1860s. But in recent years, the VA had directed its patients to more readily accessible centers and turned Fort Lyon into a nursing home and outpatient clinic; at the time of its closure, it had only 56 beds occupied, with a staff of fewer than 200.
The DOC's plans for the place were ambitious, to say the least. The department didn't have any use for the pool, the golf course or many of the 102 buildings on the campus, but some workers could live in former officers' quarters, and a few hospital buildings around the parade ground would accommodate a mix of inmates. According to the plan presented to the state legislature, the prison would soon house 500 medium-security prisoners — 50 percent of them able-bodied, the rest made up in equal parts of the physically infirm and mentally ill. There would be 300 employees, almost half of whom would be medical, nursing or mental-health professionals. Eventually, the place could be home to a thousand of the state's 20,000 prisoners, with a thriving correctional-industries operation and a special program for mentally ill prisoners who are also battling substance abuse. Best of all, by using inmate labor to accomplish many of the needed renovations, officials estimated that Fort Lyon could be converted to a prison for a mere $13 million, with another $18 million a year in operating costs.
"The modifications that are planned for the Fort Lyon facility are very limited and will primarily improve security," one briefing document explained, then added a quick cautionary note: "We may discover problems, or situations may develop over the next few years that require funding beyond the operating budget to resolve."
Six years later, situations have indeed developed at Fort Lyon. The place now has more than 500 inmates, but fewer than a hundred are the "special medical needs" prisoners who were supposed to go there. Fort Lyon has inmates with moderate mental illness, but none of the "high psychiatric needs" cases originally planned for. Like the VA, the DOC has had trouble attracting qualified medical personnel to the area and has only half of the nursing staff originally projected. The prison has had six wardens in six years. Maintenance costs for the aging facility have been significantly higher than expected, and the daily operating cost per inmate has made Fort Lyon one of the five most expensive of the state's 27 prisons.
Yet Fort Lyon's greatest problem was already lurking there when the state took it over. Instead of making Colorado a safer place and protecting sick prisoners, the move may have exposed them and staff to a range of environmental hazards. Many of these hazards, such as lead paint, were known at the time of the transfer, but the most serious — asbestos contamination in almost all of the buildings and even in the air — has turned out to be much more extensive than anticipated. In the past year, cost estimates for asbestos abatement at Fort Lyon have jumped from $6 million to $10 million — and that doesn't include the cost of dealing with asbestos-tainted soil, which officials hope to manage by spreading a little road base, growing more vegetation and not disturbing the stuff.
In the summer of 2006, a team of asbestos inspectors from Gobbell Hays, a private environmental consulting firm, collected hundreds of samples from Fort Lyon's buildings and soils. The team found "moderate to significant amounts" of asbestos-containing materials in most of the buildings, including widespread use of asbestos in steam-pipe insulation, wall plaster, baseboard and floor-tile adhesives and some ceiling and roofing materials. They also identified numerous hot spots in the dirt where buildings had been demolished decades earlier. The records of these demolitions were sketchy or non-existent, the consultants discovered, and many of the most contaminated zones weren't even tested in previous assessments of the site.
One of the worst areas was an ancient building called the Dairy Barn, which was being used by prison maintenance crews to store spare parts and equipment. For months, several inmates and staffers had crawled all over that barn, storing excess plumbing and HVAC materials and fetching parts, unaware that half a century ago the building had been used as a "hammer mill," where insulation from old pipes had been stripped off and reused. The place was crawling with asbestos fibers, Gobbell Hays found. The barn was quickly sealed, at a cost of $18,000 (not counting the loss of the inventory inside), and the outside premises micro-vacuumed.
One prisoner, who asked that his name not be used out of concerns about retaliation, followed a Gobbell Hays employee named Jose Montoya during the inspection. "He took samples of floor tiles, insulation, paint chips, ceiling tiles," the inmate remembers. "He told me he saw asbestos in the boiler room, mechanical rooms, and in the dirt outside the buildings." The inmate was stunned that no one had brought this up before, since the prison had already been operating for four years. He'd been at Fort Lyon since early 2003 and had done maintenance work in mechanical rooms, above drop ceilings and behind walls, in places where he saw stickers warning against the use of drills because of asbestos.
A few months ago, this inmate, along with 206 other former Fort Lyon maintenance workers, was ordered to report for chest X-rays. The doctor who examined the X-rays told him he had "severe abnormalities" in both lungs, he says, and ordered a CAT scan. The doctor who did the scan told him he was fine and probably had a cold. But the inmate worries it might be something worse — even though asbestos-related diseases, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, don't typically show up for fifteen years or more.