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Colorado Seeks New Use for Empty Prison

WHEN COLORADO GOVERNOR JOHN Hickenlooper announced the closure of the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Las Animas, Brent County officials became despondent. The prison was an economic mainstay of the tiny county.

“There’s no question the jobs leaving the community are some of the highest-paying jobs we have,” said County Commissioner Bill Long, who is also a member of the Brent County Economic Development Foundation (BCEDF). “We already have a child-poverty rate of 37%.”

That’s why the BCEDF, which is funded both by public and private sources, decided to pay $12,000 a month to lobbying firms to find another sustainable use for the facility.
They have contacted other states with overcrowded prison systems, such as California, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – the original owner of the facility, which was given to the state in 2001.

Colorado is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall; it spent about $6 million on the prison each year, not including staff salaries. The decision to close the facility was a reaction to the financial crisis. Nonetheless, Hickenlooper has “made a commitment” to help Brent County find a new use for the prison, which closed in March 2012.

In May 2012, news reports indicated that state officials were considering providing funding to repurpose the prison from Colorado’s share of a nationwide $25 billion settlement resulting from the mortgage crisis.

The state may use the vacant Fort Lyon prison for transitional veteran housing – which is ironic, given that veterans are overrepresented among prison populations. State Rep. Sal Pace is pushing for $5 million to repurpose the facility for housing veterans, which would also create jobs. Given the ongoing economic downturn, however, pouring millions of dollars into the empty prison is a hard sell.

The experience of other communities that have tried to sell vacant private prisons has demonstrated that there are few things more worthless and costly than an empty correctional facility. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.32].

Sources: Denver Post, Huffington Post

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