Hope and Frustration over Fort Lyon Prison Closing

Photos and Video by Russ Baldwin

Governor Hickenlooper met with Fort Lyon prison employees in Las Animas today, July 26, and later discussed alternatives for the future closing of the prison with a host of Bent County and Las Animas officials including Las Animas Mayor Lawrence Sena, all three Bent County Commissioners, state representative Wes McKinley and state senator Kevin Grantham. The meeting with the prison employees was closed to the public, but Hickenlooper later expressed a positive outlook that an alternate plan for the prison would be found. Because of state budget cuts, the prison will cease operation on March 1, 2012, sending almost 400 prisoners to other locations and putting 204 employees out of work. Everyone agrees the closing will have a tremendous financial impact on the Bent county community, as well as other towns in southeast Colorado.

Hickenlooper said recently that Fort Lyon is his main concern for economic recovery in southeast Colorado and tops the list of priorities for this area, as identified in his recent eighty page community assessment of the state.

Bill Long, chairman of the Bent County Commissioners, said he and other area representatives are traveling to Washington, D.C. August 7-9 and will meet with numerous departments to seek an alternative to the prison closing. Long said, “We’re meeting with officials from the Bureau of Prisons, Veteran’s Administration, Homeland Security, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the White House liaison for the Wounded Warrior Program, Department of Labor and Job Corps, as well as the Department of Defense and Department of Justice, plus the U.S. Federal Marshalls office and various congressional delegations.” Long told the governor, the Bent County community is taking a realistic approach to a long vacancy at the facility, and all their efforts are coming with a cost. “The Bent County Development Foundation and the county is spending about $15,000 a month on consultants, all from non-budgeted funds and an additional $2,000 a month on travel expenses,” Long added. He asked about the possibility of some financial aid from the state to continue local efforts to find a buyer for the prison. Long also asked that even though the prison will be closed come March, the state allow some activity to be maintained at the site, adding it would be very important in maintaining relations with two of three firms that have shown interest in the prison site. Long ended his statement saying he is optimistic that the prison can be repurposed, but not confidant that it will happen before the March deadline.

Tom Clements, executive director of the state Department of Corrections explained how the prison would be closed, in several phases beginning in 2012. With each group of prisoners that leaves the facility, a corresponding number of employees would also be phased out. “We want to maintain a proper level of security and safety for all involved,” he added. Once the number of prisoners has dropped to 194, they would be grouped in one central unit. Clements said there are 376 offenders incarcerated now with 204 employees on hand. About 20% of the work force is now gone, as some have left for various family considerations. The phasing out will begin in October and continue through January. Clements said the last prisoners to leave will be those most capable of doing maintenance work around the prison site. About 100 employees expressed their desire to remain in southeast Colorado during their meeting with Hickenlooper, and the governor’s Chief of Staff, Roxane White, began making inquires to CDOT and the state Parks Department to determine how many jobs could be available for that group.

The local school district will also be hard hit economically. Students will move away with their families and a lower October student head count translates to a loss of state funding. Fewer teachers will also be hired by the district. There are other ramifications to the population loss, as pointed out by school board president and vice president Kim McDonald and Bryan Simmons and commission chairman Bill Long. Bent County is already rated twice as high as the norm on the state poverty level for students, about 37%. Most of the 50 estimated students who leave with their families are not in that group, but rated as middle class, according to the school board members. Those students remaining will unfortunately skew down CSAP and other test scores which will have a negative impact on school financing from the state. At the same time, those remaining students will probably create a higher financial need for special programs and teachers. The school administrators asked if the state would be able to take those additional finances into consideration.

In closing, Governor Hickenlooper promised that he and his staff would continue to explore every alternative to assist the Bent County community in finding a way to repurpose the prison. “We’re going to continue to work very hard on your behalf,” he said, “We won’t get tired working for you.” Long said he appreciated the governor’s efforts, but the community needs help, stating that although,”We don’t rely much on our sales tax, people are still buying, but we do have a drought and a small harvest, and all that plays a part in our economy.”


By Russ Baldwin



Filed Under: BusinessCountyEconomyEducationEmploymentFeaturedPoliticsSchoolThe Journal Alert


About the Author:

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Comments are closed.