1:09pm

Tue March 1, 2011
Budget

Budget Debate Prompts Questions about Value of Prisons to Rural Colorado

Governor Hickenlooper’s proposed closure of Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in southeastern Colorado could save the state millions. But residents say the loss of 240 jobs in the impoverished area would be “devastating.”

Hickenlooper will hear their concerns first hand tomorrow when he visits the city of Las Animas.

In an attempt to close the state’s $1 billion dollar shortfall, he proposed eliminating Fort Lyon, a move that would save the state about $3 million next fiscal year. The plan would relocate able-bodied, elderly and mentally ill patients at the prison, which 10 years ago was a veteran’s hospital.

But that move does come at a cost.

“We have very high poverty rate,” says Bent County Commissioner Bill Long. “The impact locally will be very devastating.”        

If the deal goes through, the county would lose its second-largest and highest-paying employer. It would happen in a county that's salaries are so low, says Long, they’re half the statewide average. That’s why he and other local leaders are working overtime to save the prison, and the 240 jobs there.

“This has just exacerbated an already very sad situation in southeast Colorado,” he says.

History Repeats Itself

The immediate impact of job loss in small rural communities is devastating according to Long. But sociologists looking at the issue from an academic perspective say prisons are not the most viable economic engine over the long haul.

The northeastern town of Brush went through a similar experience in 2010. In an attempt to plug a hole in last year’s budget deficit, the state transferred about 200 female inmates out of High Plains Correctional Facility in Brush, which is 65 miles east of Greeley.

“We could just see that the sales had gone down two to three percent per week,” says John Sweeney, owner of the Grocery Cart in Brush. He says that happened for as long as 10 weeks.

The town of 5,000 lost 40 jobs eight months ago. Some found work at another nearby private prison 60 miles away in Hudson. But others are still looking. Grocery Cart worker Lou Banks says her daughter is one of those people.

“She was shocked, she was upset because she liked doing what she was doing. She liked being a security guard,” says Banks.

Banks says her daughter prefers working with female inmates. But with no women’s facilities nearby, and no desire to move, the options are limited if she wants to stay in the corrections field.

“If you have a job, keep it. Because there is nothing out there,” she says.

But not everyone was left feeling the pain, and some in this town didn’t even know there was a prison.

Bruce Bass owns the Old Time Country Store downtown, which sells greeting cards and upscale gift items. He says his clientele weren’t impacted by the prison closure

Brush Facility ‘Positive’ for Community

Brush city officials say there was no noticeable drop in sales tax revenue after the prison shut down. In fact, the only loss to its bottom line was an annual administrative fee that brought in as much as $22,000 annually—a small amount in relation to their annual budget.

City Administrator Monty Torres says he understands the argument that prisons may not bring long lasting economic benefits to rural communities. But for him, the private prison played a bigger role in the community—more than just a source of revenue.

“It was positive,” he says. “The warden would interact with a number of our civic groups and different members of their staff would be part of the Chamber and the Rotary Club.”

And that’s why Torres says he’s hoping the private owner, Cornell Industries, will find another use for the facility, which right now is sitting empty.

Future Uncertain for Fort Lyon

In southeastern Colorado, the scale of job loss from closing the Fort Lyon prison would be six times higher in Las Animas. That’s in a town that’s half the size of Brush. The state has offered to place Fort Lyon workers—some 240 in all—in other facilities across the state. But that won’t help the economic climate in the region, says Commissioner Bill Long. He says if the state can’t save the prison, he and others will move to Plan B.

“We’ll reach out the federal government, private operators of correctional facilities, we will not leave a stone unturned in trying to find a viable occupant that will employ people from our region,” he says.

Long can expect some support from 21 other southern Colorado counties, which wrote a letter to Hickenlooper in opposition to the prison closure. And while it will be the Governor touring Fort Lyon grounds tomorrow, it’s ultimately state legislators who will get to decide the fate of the prison.

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