The Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee has granted a six-month stay of execution for the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility near Las Animas, in southeast Colorado.
While it may be a good idea to slow down and examine all options for scaling back the state’s overblown correctional network, Gov. John Hickenlooper was wise to recommend the closure of at least one prison. Fort Lyon, an expensive and inefficient operation, seems like a good place to start.
The delay in closing Fort Lyon, and the controversy surrounding the closure, involves concerns about the economy of Las Animas and the surrounding region. “It’s going to devastate that community,” said Rep. John Becker, R-Fort Morgan, who’s a member of the Joint Budget Committee.
The 500-bed prison is a former Veterans Administration hospital that was sold to Colorado for $1 in 2001. Of the 487 prisoners who reside there today, 86 have serious medical needs that require routine transportation to and from Pueblo and other distant communities. The per-day cost is $106.61 for each inmate, which compares to $73.16 on average, at the state’s other medium-security prisons. At some private prisons, the daily cost of each inmate is as low as $52.69.
Colorado — like much of the country — simply has too many prisons. As the average age in Colorado rises, the violent crime rate drops. For the past two years, the prison population in Colorado has declined by more than 600.
In addition to decline in violent crime, a variety of advances in supervision technology are giving society the option of keeping marginally violent offenders out of cages. State Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, supports closing the prison and speaks of declining recidivism rates as another opportunity to shrink the prison-industrial complex going forward.
“The reality is that we just have too much government,” said Gardner, as quoted in the Bent County Democrat. “Sometimes the most efficient thing is to shut something down, even if people will be impacted in the short term. The role of prison is not one of an economic development tool for a community.”
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Too often we hear about the economic benefits of prisons, and all such talk is nonsense. A prison is a necessary evil, and the definition of public liability. Nothing is produced. Prisoners must be fed, housed, clothed and provided with medical care — all at huge expense to society. They pay no taxes and often render their families to subsist on public assistance.
We will never do away with the need for prisons, but let’s be careful to never confuse a prison as something other than a cost. Prisons bring jobs and wealth to localities that host them, but the money is taken from other regions. This is necessary, but should not be confused as economic gain.
No one wants to see harm come to the economy in and around Las Animas. As we wait to determine the final fate of Fort Lyon, legislators, the people of southeast Colorado and others throughout the state should brainstorm ways to use the old VA facilities for ventures that will create wealth and jobs and grow the economy. Let’s not keep a prison that we don’t need, fooling ourselves with economic mythology.