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Federal Correctional Complex at the Center of City’s Water Debacle

by Panagioti Tsolkas

Any attention that Florence,Colorado receives from the world outside its rural and mountainous borders tends to involve the federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) supermax facility, built near the city 25 years ago. And news coverage of the prison, known as the ADX, doesn’t tend to be very flattering. For example, last year the New York Times Magazine featured a high-profile lawsuit challenging solitary confinement conditions at ADX that have driven once-sane prisoners into total madness, including reports of self-castration and prisoners eating their own fingers. 

Florence was once known for coal mining and uranium milling, and while the beauty of the area endured despite such industrial activity, there’s not much left aside from prisons as a form of economic development. The ADX is one of a dozen state and federal facilities located in the remote region.

In 1993, construction of the federal prison complex in Florence reportedly enjoyed a 97% approval rate from area residents who were starved for jobs. While it experienced local fanfare, the facility was also a subject of national controversy due to the residual contamination of coal and uranium processing to which prisoners would be exposed and the extreme isolation they would have to endure at the ADX.

Today there is another issue facing the prison complex: the facility’s water conversation efforts are costing the city millions in revenue.

In 2008, the federal government ordered all its agencies to reduce their carbon footprints. Rather than scaling back its bloated prison population, as sentencing reform groups have long advocated, the BOP opted for risking the health and sanitation of prisoners by curtailing their water usage.

During a public hearing in October 2017, Florence City Manager Mike Patterson went through a draft of the city’s 2018 budget and indicated they had lost about $2 million over the last four years alone as a result of reduced water consumption at the prison complex, exacerbated by a dispute with the BOP over the city’s attempt to raise rates in an effort to compensate for the fiscal shortfall. The BOP has refused to pay the inflated water rates since March 2017.

Florence officials discussed the option of shutting off the water, but the city’s attorney, Matthew Krob, suggested that may not be the best solution – not due to the impact it would have on prisoners, but rather because if they cut the water service the BOP could sue the city, which would cost them even more in legal fees.

Florence officials projected they will lose about $419,000 in revenue in 2017 due to lower-than-expected water usage.

A Foreshadowing of What’s to Come in East Kentucky?

Meanwhile, across the country, deep in the Appalachian mountains, residents in Letcher County, Kentucky are at the front end of a similar situation. A proposed 1,200-bed federal prison, USP Letcher, has not yet broken ground or even completed the required environmental review process, but the local budget battle is already well under way. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.26].

According to a September 2016 report by The Mountain Eagle, a newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky, “Less than three full months into the budget for Fiscal Year 2016–2017, the Letcher County Fiscal Court is facing a $1.3 million shortfall and the necessity of taking drastic action.”

Lill Prosperino, with the Letcher Governance Project, a local watchdog group that opposes the construction of USP Letcher, released a statement in December 2017, saying, “Letcher County still does not have the financial resources to support the construction of sewer and water systems necessary to make this prison a feasible project.”

While the county budget can’t afford to cover the costs of increased infrastructure associated with the federal facility, prison advocates like U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents a district in eastern Kentucky, continues to extol the potential benefits – jobs, taxes and utility revenue – if construction moves forward. However, even the BOP has backed away from the $444 million prison project, which was not included in the Trump administration’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2018.

“Over the last eight years, eastern Kentucky lost around 12,000 jobs in the coal industry,” Rep. Rogers’ office said in a statement. “Therefore, Congressman Rogers views the new prison as a dual answer to prison overcrowding and the need for job creation in Kentucky’s Appalachian region.”

But Letcher County residents and officials can look across the country to Florence, Colorado for the reality of what can happen when a local government becomes dependent on a prison town economy and revenue. 

Sources: Canyon City Daily Record, The Mountain Eagle, The Marshall Project


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