Gitmo hysteria and Colorado's prison-happy Fremont County

That annoying, low-pitched whine you hear is the bipartisan complaining from Colorado lawmakers, true blue and beet red, all bent out of shape and quaking in their Crocs over a simple little suggestion from the Obama administration to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. That would mean turning its inhabitants over to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons -- and, most likely, the relocation of scores of terrorism suspects to the federal supermax in Colorado.

Holy jihad, Batman. From all the fuss out there, you'd think someone had proposed to ban puppy mills or raise energy severance taxes or something equally unAmerican. You've got a bunch of tough Republican state legislators, like Yuma's Cory Gardner and Ken Kester of Las Animas, fretting like a flock of pantywaists over whether the arrival of so many Gitmo grads in Colorado would "create a magnet for terrorist acts staged to politicize the detention of terrorists in a vulnerable Middle American community." Kester has vowed to fight the move "tooth and nail," which sounds like a scratch-and-hiss little catfight if there ever was one.

And, inexplicably, you've got Mark Udall and Michael Bennett -- both Senators, both Democrats -- thumbing down the proposal, too, agonizing over the implications of housing military detainees in a civilian hoosegow. All of which seems a bit baffling, given the mission and history of the supermax, officially known as the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum: ADX for short.

The fact is that ADX already houses a number of scary terrorists, from Ramzi Yousef (1993 World Trade Center bombing) to shoe bomber Richard Reid and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Arguably, these are not the place's most dangerous occupants, either, given the presence of high-level gang leaders like Barry "The Baron" Mills and the former drug-cartel executioner Dandenis "La Quica" Munoz, whose body count rivals that of Timothy McVeigh.

In fact, a more practical problem in moving the Gitmo detainees to Colorado is how to come up with another 240 beds. As Bruce Finley reports in this Denver Post article, ADX is currently operating close to capacity. Just how many of its inmates could be moved to high-security pens elsewhere isn't clear, since we don't know much about the rank and file in the place. In addition to terrorists and gang leaders, ADX also houses a lot of felons deemed too violent or escape-prone to be placed in general population elsewhere, as well as some mentally ill prisoners. But we never hear about them, in part because (as first reported in Westword in 2007's "Fortress of Solitude") no journalist has been allowed to visit any prisoner at ADX since before the September 11 attacks.

What we do know is that ADX has been managing a wide array of dangerous prisoners for fifteen years now, and locals seem to take it in stride. That's part of the deal Fremont County made with the feds when it decided to become the prison capital of the western world, housing a dozen state facilities as well as four federal ones. Officers at ADX have had to force-feed some of its hunger-striking terrorists (what's left to "politicize," Senator Kester?), deal with psychotic inmates hurling feces, and cope with penny-pinching managers and inadequate staffing. The idea that the Gitmo crowd could make that any more formidable than it already is seems a bit -- well, hysterical.

For more on the history of ADX and some of its more notorious residents, head to our Crime and Punishment archive.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast