The Poisoned Pen of Fort Lyon Prison

History Lesson #1

In 1829, William Bent headed west to join his older brother in the fur business. William was twenty years old, the son of a Missouri supreme court justice — and, like his brother Charlie, who would one day be the first governor of the New Mexico Territory, he soon fell in love with the lawless vastness that would become southern Colorado.

After he hid two Cheyenne from their archenemy, the Comanches, William became a trusted friend of the Cheyenne nation. Their chief, Black Kettle, called him Little White Man. At 26, Bent married a Cheyenne woman; after her death, he married her sister. He built a log stockade not far from what is now Pueblo and then, using laborers from Mexico, a sturdier adobe fort on the eastern plains, a haven for travelers along the Santa Fe Trail.

For several years, Bent's Fort hummed with trade. Wagon trains, Indians, soldiers and buffalo hunters all came to do business with Bent and his partner, Ceran St. Vrain. But as the pace of settlement increased, relations with the local tribes deteriorated — and so did commerce. In 1849, St. Vrain offered to sell the fort to the Army.

The offer came a decade too early. Within a few years, the Colorado gold rush would bring thousands of whites to the territory and increasing trouble with the Indians. There would be great need for an Army post along this stretch of the Santa Fe Trail — and great grief over actions staged from the new fort that would be built there. But in 1849 the government didn't see any reason to buy Bent's Fort. Some officials believed they could take over the place for nothing after the owners, bedeviled by hostile tribes, finally gave it up as a bad deal.

But Bent refused to give the Army his creation. Instead, he placed kegs of gunpowder along the adobe walls and blew up the whole shebang.

The Far Side of the Dollar

On November 15, 2001, a century and a half after Bent destroyed his fort, a group of federal, state and Bent County bureaucrats gathered less than twenty miles away, on the handsome 556-acre campus of Fort Lyon. The site had been an Army post, then a Navy sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, then a psychiatric hospital, then a chronic-care center operated by the Veterans Administration. Now, for the princely sum of one dollar, the feds were about to turn over Fort Lyon to the State of Colorado, which planned to transform the property into a special prison for elderly and mentally ill inmates.

Some observers described the transfer ceremony as "bittersweet," but any sweetness was hard to find. Then-governor Bill Owens sought an upbeat note, declaring that the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility "will make Colorado a safer place" and would be "a lot cheaper than building a prison from the ground up." A few old-timers in the crowd cracked wise about the kind of society that would turn a hospital for military vets into a rest home for geriatric felons. Locals wondered glumly if the job opportunities offered by a new prison, many of which would be filled by longtime Department of Corrections employees, could begin to make up for the lost federal jobs.

In its heyday, Fort Lyon had been a sprawling town unto itself, populated by more than a thousand patients. It had an Olympic swimming pool, a miniature golf course, tennis courts and an array of living quarters and other buildings dating back to the 1860s. But in recent years, the VA had directed its patients to more readily accessible centers and turned Fort Lyon into a nursing home and outpatient clinic; at the time of its closure, it had only 56 beds occupied, with a staff of fewer than 200.

The DOC's plans for the place were ambitious, to say the least. The department didn't have any use for the pool, the golf course or many of the 102 buildings on the campus, but some workers could live in former officers' quarters, and a few hospital buildings around the parade ground would accommodate a mix of inmates. According to the plan presented to the state legislature, the prison would soon house 500 medium-security prisoners — 50 percent of them able-bodied, the rest made up in equal parts of the physically infirm and mentally ill. There would be 300 employees, almost half of whom would be medical, nursing or mental-health professionals. Eventually, the place could be home to a thousand of the state's 20,000 prisoners, with a thriving correctional-industries operation and a special program for mentally ill prisoners who are also battling substance abuse. Best of all, by using inmate labor to accomplish many of the needed renovations, officials estimated that Fort Lyon could be converted to a prison for a mere $13 million, with another $18 million a year in operating costs.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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