Supersalesman Joe Vaughn arrived on Springfield's main street late last year determined to sell the plains town on the economic benefits of building a privately financed prison west of the Baca County fairgrounds. It was a familiar sales pitch for Vaughn, an Indiana-based promoter who has cut deals for rent-a-prisons in small towns throughout America, always taking his fee off the top. But so far the response in Springfield, a quiet place with a history of loud political activism, has been anything but typical.
Almost immediately after Vaughn laid out his proposal during a December 15 community meeting in the high school gymnasium, he was faced with organized opposition from a group of outspoken farmers and other residents who have been burning up phone and fax lines around the country in an attempt to poke holes in Vaughn's claim that inmates will bring jobs and prosperity to the town of 1,500 in the state's southeastern corner.
In the face of that backlash--and a less than enthusiastic reaction from the state Department of Corrections--the project has been radically downsized and faces an increasingly uncertain fate when voters take up the matter February 7 in a countywide referendum.
Springfield, after all, is the birthplace of the American Agriculture Movement (AAM), a rabidly populist movement that blockaded the local federal building, dispatched tractorcades to Washington, D.C., and organized a national farmers' strike before running out of steam in the early 1980s. For many of the community's inhabitants, political hardball is as much a part of life as the fall harvest.
"The first thing we learned back then was to do a little digging," says farmer Charles Hume, an AAM veteran who's now determined to plow under the Vaughn deal. The sophisticated campaign waged by Hume and other critics has included contact with investment bankers, securities analysts and university professors, many of whom are skeptical of efforts to revive America's rural economy by importing big-city criminals to prisons funded by speculators and run by county governments.
"We have been researching this up the ying-yang," says prison opponent Dorothy Dennis, who teaches school in the outlying settlement of Pritchett. Even the schoolchildren don't approve of the prison, adds Dennis: A recent poll in the school newspaper found 75 percent of the student body opposed to the notion of erecting eighteen-foot razor-wire fences on an abandoned farm and inviting the state Department of Corrections to send in its overflow prisoners.
However, in a county that has lost population in every census for the past forty years, there's plenty of support for a project that could provide young people with jobs--even as prison guards. The December meeting attracted more than 600 people, says county attorney Mark Schmidt, quite a turnout considering there was a high school basketball tournament in Lamar that night. And, Schmidt adds, "the impression I got from people there was that maybe a majority were in favor."
Vaughn also has the backing of all three county commissioners--in fact, commissioner Don Self says he and his colleagues invited the salesman to town in the first place. "We're kind of desperate," says Self, who adds that commissioners are "doing anything and everything" they can to attract employers of all stripes.
Baca County isn't the first rural community to seek its salvation from Vaughn, a retired apartment developer who now makes his living arranging financial marriages between institutional investors and small-town politicians. The beauty of his sales pitch: Local officials get the prospect of economic revival with practically no financial downside.
Vaughn offers a true package deal, supplying his own architects, consultants and construction company to build the prison. All he asks in return is a fee amounting to 1.5 percent of the total project costs. Under the original Baca County proposal, which called for a $28 million facility housing 520 inmates, his take would have been roughly $400,000.
Such projects have the effect of "casting local units of government in an entrepreneurial role," says Charles W. Thomas, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida who follows the growing private-prison industry. The hope is that after state prison officials pay the county for watching their inmates, enough cash will be left over to pay the bills, give financiers a fat return on their investment and, perhaps, even turn a profit for the county.
The money to build the prison comes from private investors, who buy the financial equivalent of junk bonds and are left holding the bag if the facility can't attract enough paying customers to break even. All county politicians have to do is run the place--and, of course, lend their tax-exempt status to the deal, a wrinkle that helps Vaughn peddle the risky financial instruments on the capital markets.
Three years ago Vaughn brokered the deal for a privately funded prison near Las Animas, a town about 100 miles northwest of Springfield. The Bent County Correctional Facility draws criticism from outgoing undersheriff Don Trujillo, who says investigating assaults at the prison taxed his department's resources. The officer also blames the facility for what he describes as increased heroin use in the town.
But at least the Bent County prison is full of state prisoners--321 at last count--and has begun making payments on the "certificates of participation" used to finance the deal. Officials in Irwin County, Georgia, and Zavala County, Texas, where Vaughn made stops before venturing into Colorado, haven't been as lucky. Facilities in those communities have been plagued by escapes and management snafus; their financial futures remain anything but certain.
Despite a chronic shortage of cells, Colorado corrections officials have done little to encourage a prison in Springfield. Ron Ditmore, DOC's deputy director for administrative services, says the state can't guarantee it will send prisoners to such a facility, and it certainly doesn't plan to foot the bill for transporting inmates to and from a community that's closer to Amarillo, Texas, than it is to Denver.
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Vaughn and the county commissioners got that news at a January 5 meeting in Colorado Springs attended by Hume and other citizen watchdogs ("We in essence invited ourselves," says Hume). Reached at his Indiana office, Vaughn acknowledges that the DOC reaction was "lukewarm" and says the Springfield proposal has accordingly been pared down to about 330 prisoners. He won't bother to refigure the project's total costs, he adds, unless voters give the green light on February 7.
Hume claims that community sentiment is slowly turning against the project as more information comes to light. "The tone of the first meeting started out real positive and ended up neutral to slightly skeptical," he says. The second meeting, he says, ended with the audience "decidedly skeptical."
Whatever residents decide, Self says the commissioners will respect their wishes. "We're not trying to pull anything over the people's eyes," he notes. But Hume says he's suspicious of what he describes as the commissioners' boosterish approach to importing felons.
He learned "some of the more basic tricks of the publicist's trade" during his days with the AAM, Hume notes. He and other critics plan to blanket the town with flyers and "keep punching" until the election. "I think we can kick their butts," says the farmer, "and that's sure what we're going to try to do.