The Denver Post
LAS ANIMAS — After touring the Fort Lyon Correction facility and meeting with local officials here today, Gov. John Hickenlooper said he will revisit his decision to close the prison this summer.
Earlier, Hickenlooper proposed closing the prison Aug. 31 to help close a nearly $1.1 billion budget shortfall. In the first full year after it is closed, the savings would be $6.3 million.
But leaders in southeastern Colorado have mounted a full-court press, noting that the prison is second-largest employer in Bent County and the closure would devastate the region.
At the very least, give us a year, regional officials asked at a lunch today at the Bent County Courthouse after the prison tour.
"This is a disproportionate impact on the community," the governor agreed. "We'll go back and look at it."
He said his staff is working to try to "repurpose the facility," to help ease the impact of the prison's closure.
That was a relief to locals such as Bent County Commissioner Bill Long, who said the prison closing would have almost the same impact as a tornado hitting the town.
Mark MacDonnell, with the Bent County Development Foundation, said the area has struggled economically for decades, and a prison closure would make the situation even more dire.
"The number of children living in poverty in Bent County is approximately 37.6 percent compared to the state's 15.7 percent," MacDonnell said. "That's staggering. That's Appalachian."
Fort Lyon sits about 90 miles east of Pueblo on Colorado 50. During the tour with the governor and his staff, Warden Dave Zupan touted the recreation yard with its huge cottonwood trees, the wheel-chair accessible living quarters and the tunnels that connect the buildings.
Hickenlooper frequently remarked how much it seemed like a college campus, with the old brick buildings.
"It's not hard to imagine what it's like here in the spring," he said. "It's a very serene and beautiful pace, but it doesn't diminish the economics. The dirty word here is 'math.'"
As Hickenlooper toured the prison this morning, an inmate standing in the recreation yard peppered him with questions this morning.
"Hey guv, whadda ya gonna do?" the inmate asked. "Are you gonna close it? Whadda ya gonna do, governor?"
Fort Lyon is one of the costliest prisons to operate for its classification, said Tom Clements, director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. One reason is because the 566-acre facility used to be a veteran's hospital and it wasn't built to be a secure facility. The federal government transferred it to the state in 2001 for $1 after spending $12 million for new windows and roofs on some of the buildings. The state spent another $6 million refurbishing it.
But at the time, Colorado's inmate population was mushrooming, with an average of 90 new prisoners a month, DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan said. Colorado was looking for more places to put inmates.
Although Fort Lyon was intended to handle those with special medical needs, about 300 of the 500 or so inmates are considered "general population."
The governor also toured the medical ward where paraplegic and quadriplegic inmates live. In a graphics design class, two of the 10 students were in wheelchairs.
Martha Comacho, a nursing supervisor, gave Hickenlooper an earful about ways the prison could cut medical costs.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Wednesday, March 02, 2011
The Denver Post