Gov. Bill Ritter has commuted the death sentence of the Rifle Correctional Center.
Ritter and the Colorado Department of Corrections reversed a decision to close the minimum-security facility after state Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, pushed to keep it open.
“That’s awesome. That’s great. That is great,” said Mike Morgan, who is chief of the Rifle Fire Protection District and one of many Garfield County residents who had spoken out against the proposed closure.
Morgan had been particularly concerned over the prospective loss of an inmate wildland firefighting team.
The state Department of Corrections had proposed closing the 192-bed facility as one way of helping deal with Colorado’s fiscal shortfall.
White said the decision to keep the prison open followed negotiations with the governor’s office and state Department of Corrections. Before that, he said, he had to persuade fellow members of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee to support keeping the prison open.
“I’m just glad that we’re able to accomplish what I think is a laudable goal,” he said.
He said it made no sense to close the prison when the state is sure to need more prison beds. He worries that Colorado could end up at the mercy of whatever rates private prisons might charge.
The closure also would have meant the loss of 57 jobs at a time when the Rifle-area economy is slowing down amidst a cutback in natural gas development. The city and Garfield County had opposed the closure, which would have saved the state an estimated $600,000 a year.
Several hundred people turned out for a recent meeting in Rifle to oppose the prison’s closure.
Ritter said in a statement, “After listening to the concerns of people in Rifle and working closely with the department and the JBC, we believe we can close the budget shortfall without closing this facility. The community played a valuable role in sharing its concerns, and I’m pleased we were able to find common ground and reach consensus.”
Rifle City Councilman Alan Lambert said inmates have provided work worth probably hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city’s parks department. Also, prison employees volunteer as coaches, on community boards and in other capacities, Lambert said.
“They’re really tied to the community, and they’re supporting us not only from a job’s sake, keeping that paycheck here, but with their knowledge and their place in the community,” he said.