Declining Prison Populations Equals Difficult Financial Decisions

 State of Colorado Seal Wide

The Fort Lyon prison closing in Las Animas over two years ago was probably the tip of the iceberg for a trend being seen in the state’s dwindling prisoner population.  Lack of prisoners at Fort Lyon meant layoffs for employees and the eventual closing of the facility.  Several hundred jobs were lost, local purchase orders ended and tax revenue was eroded.  Bent County is still trying to cope with the aftermath, hoping the repurposing of Fort Lyon as a treatment center for homeless veterans will bring back at least a few jobs over the next several years.  

Bent County officials are hoping it’s the only economic hit they have to weather as the state Department of Corrections is making plans for adjustments to other prisons in the region due to a continued decline in the prisoner population around Colorado.  Various county commissioners and community representatives attended the meeting to see what kind of economic fallout could come to their areas due to proposed changes in the prison system.  How the situation developed in Colorado was outlined during a meeting in Las Animas, Tuesday, June 10, hosted by representatives of the Department of Corrections, the Office of State Planning and Budgeting and the Department of Local Affairs.

Reeves Brown, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, moderated the meeting and explained how shifting prison population trends brought the problem before the legislature last year.


Some of the reasons for the decline in prisoners across the state were highlighted:

Fewer offenders are entering prisons due to alternatives for less-dangerous prisoners.
   Decreasing lengths of incarceration because of increased time off for good behavior statutes.
   Fewer parolees returning to prison for technical parole violations.
   Increased discretionary releases by the State Parole Board. 

The state has saved an estimated $55.21M since 2009 with the elimination of 2,503 prison beds, including the 500 beds with the closing of Fort Lyon.  Brown pointed out that as the new prisons in rural areas helped the economy of the area, the downsizing or decommissioning of the same prisons had a negative impact on those communities.  He said the state has learned a lesson from that impact and DOLA and other organizations are taking steps at a state level to help alleviate any future impact.  

Henry Sobanet, Director of State Planning and Budgeting, told the gathering that a $3 million, two-year grant from the General Fund will be used to help grow and diversify the economies of rural communities.  A focus group will conduct an in-depth study of the economics of each impacted community and offer recommendations for future job turnaround and business development.   He said a system-wide “Prison Utilization Study” that identifies the most appropriate and cost-effective uses of the available public and private inmate beds will be completed by June 30 and the results will be made public later this summer.

Bent County Commissioner, Bill Long, made a specific request of the representatives for his community, asking them to take into consideration the economic impact the Fort Lyon closing has already had on the region, stating, “We’ve already paid our dues with one prison closure.  We shouldn’t have to do it a second time on the same mission.  We can’t afford a second closing or substantial prisoner reduction for the future for our communities.”

By Russ Baldwin

Filed Under: BusinessCityCommissionerscommunityCountyEconomyEmploymentFeaturedLaw EnforcementPoliticsProwers CountyUtilities


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