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.
"The modifications that are planned for the Fort Lyon facility are very limited and will primarily improve security," one briefing document explained, then added a quick cautionary note: "We may discover problems, or situations may develop over the next few years that require funding beyond the operating budget to resolve."
Six years later, situations have indeed developed at Fort Lyon. The place now has more than 500 inmates, but fewer than a hundred are the "special medical needs" prisoners who were supposed to go there. Fort Lyon has inmates with moderate mental illness, but none of the "high psychiatric needs" cases originally planned for. Like the VA, the DOC has had trouble attracting qualified medical personnel to the area and has only half of the nursing staff originally projected. The prison has had six wardens in six years. Maintenance costs for the aging facility have been significantly higher than expected, and the daily operating cost per inmate has made Fort Lyon one of the five most expensive of the state's 27 prisons.
Yet Fort Lyon's greatest problem was already lurking there when the state took it over. Instead of making Colorado a safer place and protecting sick prisoners, the move may have exposed them and staff to a range of environmental hazards. Many of these hazards, such as lead paint, were known at the time of the transfer, but the most serious — asbestos contamination in almost all of the buildings and even in the air — has turned out to be much more extensive than anticipated. In the past year, cost estimates for asbestos abatement at Fort Lyon have jumped from $6 million to $10 million — and that doesn't include the cost of dealing with asbestos-tainted soil, which officials hope to manage by spreading a little road base, growing more vegetation and not disturbing the stuff.
In the summer of 2006, a team of asbestos inspectors from Gobbell Hays, a private environmental consulting firm, collected hundreds of samples from Fort Lyon's buildings and soils. The team found "moderate to significant amounts" of asbestos-containing materials in most of the buildings, including widespread use of asbestos in steam-pipe insulation, wall plaster, baseboard and floor-tile adhesives and some ceiling and roofing materials. They also identified numerous hot spots in the dirt where buildings had been demolished decades earlier. The records of these demolitions were sketchy or non-existent, the consultants discovered, and many of the most contaminated zones weren't even tested in previous assessments of the site.
One of the worst areas was an ancient building called the Dairy Barn, which was being used by prison maintenance crews to store spare parts and equipment. For months, several inmates and staffers had crawled all over that barn, storing excess plumbing and HVAC materials and fetching parts, unaware that half a century ago the building had been used as a "hammer mill," where insulation from old pipes had been stripped off and reused. The place was crawling with asbestos fibers, Gobbell Hays found. The barn was quickly sealed, at a cost of $18,000 (not counting the loss of the inventory inside), and the outside premises micro-vacuumed.
One prisoner, who asked that his name not be used out of concerns about retaliation, followed a Gobbell Hays employee named Jose Montoya during the inspection. "He took samples of floor tiles, insulation, paint chips, ceiling tiles," the inmate remembers. "He told me he saw asbestos in the boiler room, mechanical rooms, and in the dirt outside the buildings." The inmate was stunned that no one had brought this up before, since the prison had already been operating for four years. He'd been at Fort Lyon since early 2003 and had done maintenance work in mechanical rooms, above drop ceilings and behind walls, in places where he saw stickers warning against the use of drills because of asbestos.
A few months ago, this inmate, along with 206 other former Fort Lyon maintenance workers, was ordered to report for chest X-rays. The doctor who examined the X-rays told him he had "severe abnormalities" in both lungs, he says, and ordered a CAT scan. The doctor who did the scan told him he was fine and probably had a cold. But the inmate worries it might be something worse — even though asbestos-related diseases, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, don't typically show up for fifteen years or more.
"Until last year, inmates doing maintenance were not prevented from entering any and all areas of Fort Lyon," he says. "I was not given any training or protective gear. The few inmates who did protest the working conditions were transferred out to other facilities."
Last year, the DOC finally hired an asbestos coordinator: Jose Montoya, the Gobbell Hays employee the inmate had followed.
But Phil DeFelice, the physical plant manager for Fort Lyon for the past three years, says that no prisoners have ever worked on asbestos abatement projects at the prison. "The inmates don't do any work that has to do with asbestos at all," he says. "It's all done by staff."
However, DeFelice and other officials acknowledge that there have been situations, including the Dairy Barn fiasco, in which inmates or staff were accidentally exposed to asbestos. Several have been documented by state health inspectors investigating inmate complaints. The DOC administrators insist that these incidents are isolated and have been blown out of proportion; the procedures they've put in place since the Gobbell Hays inspection, they say, are more than adequate to prevent further exposures. But sealing off or removing the asbestos, a project that falls outside the prison's operational budget, is being done in incremental stages as funding becomes available and may take twenty years or more. And some prisoners who are knowledgeable about asbestos abatement claim the documented incidents are only the tip of a costly, pervasive problem at Fort Lyon that the DOC failed to adequately address in its eagerness to ship prisoners there.
"The first thing they're going to do is say that we're felons and we lie," says Jerry Bachota, a prisoner with a background in construction who spent two years at Fort Lyon. "But there's a reason the feds gave up this property for a buck."
History Lesson #2
In 1853 William Bent built a new fort several miles east of the old one. The location, not far from present-day Lamar, struck the Army as a good area in which to erect its own fort, a sandstone compound that could offer protection to travelers between Kansas and Santa Fe.
The construction of Fort Wise, named after Henry Wise, the fancy-pants, well-connected governor of Virginia, began in 1860. Soldiers called the place Fort Fauntleroy. The name was changed to Fort Lyon the following year, after the War Between the States made Wise a secessionist and claimed the life of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon.
Troop strength at Fort Lyon dwindled during the Civil War, as many of its soldiers were sent elsewhere. But the holdouts did see some action against the Indians, including one of the most notable atrocities of the period. In 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington came to Fort Lyon to commandeer additional forces to aid his regiment of hard-drinking irregulars. With the blessing of his close personal friend, territorial governor John Evans, Chivington was on a mission to suppress troublesome Indian factions who were defying a treaty that had been signed at the fort in 1861. The Treaty of Fort Wise ceded vast stretches of land to the whites that had been guaranteed to the Plains tribes only a few years earlier.
The morning after his visit to Fort Lyon, Chivington staged a dawn attack on a peaceful, largely unarmed village of Cheyenne and Arapaho. Most of the village's adult males were out hunting. Although some soldiers refused to fire, Chivington's bunch slaughtered and mutilated hundreds of women, children and elders. Trophies from the raid, including scalps and genitalia, were displayed in saloons in Denver. Public revulsion followed, and the incident became known as the Sand Creek Massacre. William Bent's son Robert, forced to serve as a guide to Chivington, testified against him in the subsequent official investigations. But the colonel was never charged with any crime.
Still, some taint from the mass murder — bad karma, sin, a vengeful spirit or just rotten luck — seemed to find its way back to Fort Lyon. In 1867 a spring ice dam backed up the Arkansas River and flooded the post, forcing the Army to abandon it. The deluge also plucked the bodies of dead soldiers from the fort's cemetery. The waterlogged corpses were piled on wagons and put on a train, to be reburied at Fort Leavenworth.
Lance Coats arrived at Fort Lyon in 2002, in the first wave of inmates who were put to work building a fence around the perimeter and renovating the cellhouses. He was handed gloves and a bucket, ordered to watch a training video, and informed that he was now a porter.
A nonviolent offender serving time for a telephone harassment case and parole violations, Coats was never officially assigned to renovation work. But his job sometimes took him into the construction zone. He remembers being called to one room to clean up blood after an inmate cut his hand while installing drywall.
"When I walked in, the place was so cloudy," he recalls. "Clouds and clouds of dust. They were breaking drywall and tearing the place apart. I asked, 'You guys don't wear masks?' They said, 'They don't have none.'"
No one could get away from the dust, he says — not just drywall dust, but airborne bits of pipe insulation, particles of torn-up flooring and so on. The inmates doing the renovations would come back to their four-man or eight-man rooms and shake their dusty clothes off in front of you. After they removed sections of the drop ceiling in the living quarters, stuff would flake off the exposed pipes above and drift down on you. When the wind blew hard, as it often did, the windows would rattle and the flakes would fall like Christmas in an old Jimmy Stewart movie.
"We'd go to chow, and when we came back, we'd have to wipe our beds clean," Coats says, shaking his head. "The place was terrible. I feel everybody was exposed."
Other inmates who were at Fort Lyon during the first couple of years of renovation tell similar stories of dust and flakes everywhere. No protective gear. No adequate partitions or plastic sheeting to seal off work areas from the rest of the building. No procedure for preventing contamination from the work area being tracked back to living spaces. Exposed pipes with deteriorating insulation above their beds.
According to DOC officials, the inmate accounts overstate the degree of potential airborne exposure they faced. Asbestos isn't like radioactive waste; it's a stable, fibrous mineral with superior heat resistance and insulation properties, which is why for decades it was widely used in everything from brake pads to roofing shingles. The primary danger it poses comes from inhaling the fibers from friable (crumbling or pulverized) asbestos; actual removal is often more hazardous than "managing in place." The VA had managed much of the asbestos at Fort Lyon by encapsulating it or leaving it alone, and the state's plan was to do the same.
The DOC's DeFelice, who arrived at Fort Lyon two years after Coats, is skeptical of claims that routine renovation work exposed inmates to asbestos. The ceiling pipes in the cellhouses are covered with fiberglass insulation, he notes, with asbestos underneath. As long as nobody was cutting through the fiberglass, the asbestos would not have been released. "Not all of the insulation has asbestos under it," he says. "I personally did a glove-bag test in one building, and the asbestos on the pipe was hard, hard material. The stuff I encountered was not that friable."
DeFelice also discounts claims of exposure during drywall work; the DOC hired private contractors to do asbestos abatement early in the renovation process, he says. But the DOC's own consultant, Gobbell Hays, refers cryptically in its report to "varying levels of asbestos abatement" by the DOC and "a minimal amount" on some housing units done by the VA years ago. Inmates had already been moved onto the campus in 2002 while the DOC abatement was under way, and two of the asbestos contractors hired by the state were fined for violations of proper procedure by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. One of those contractors, Occupational Health Technologies, protested that DOC staff interfered with the abatement process, denying access to critical areas and letting inmates and other contractors work in places that hadn't been cleared for use.
"We were told that we were to stay out of areas...where asbestos was suspected of being present," OHT director Thomas Antonson wrote to a state inspector. "The Department of Corrections was utilizing convict labor to help defray demolition and construction costs.... I walked out in frustration because I felt we were being prevented from completing our contract as it was written."
Antonson said that a DOC supervisor had asked that one of his employees be replaced because he was "wearing his respirator and possibly causing alarm among the convict laborers.... What was unknown to me was the indifference to Regulation 8 by the DOC." Regulation 8 is the state's lengthy set of procedures for proper asbestos management, removal and disposal.
Some of the first prisoners to arrive at Fort Lyon were housed in Building Seven, one of the large hospital buildings by the parade ground. A 2003 state health inspection, made after inmates had already been living there several months, found several rooms with inadequate lighting, insufficient ventilation, damaged floors and ceilings, bedsheets used as restroom doors and more bunks per room than the law allowed.
As Fort Lyon expands, Building Seven is slated to hold up to 250 prisoners. But right now it's unoccupied — because there are still outstanding asbestos problems there that need to be addressed. According to last year's Gobbell Hays inspection, the most serious areas include thousands of feet of pipe insulation in "good to poor condition," and contaminated soils and dislodged asbestos materials in crawl spaces.
DeFelice and other DOC officials interviewed by Westword couldn't explain why inmates were moved to Fort Lyon before basic asbestos abatement processes were completed. "I can't answer that," says Lou Archuleta, the DOC's assistant director of prisons, who was the fifth of six wardens at Fort Lyon. "The decisions were made elsewhere. One of the things I found out in the year I was there is that asbestos is everywhere. You can still buy materials off the shelf that contain asbestos. But we put in a process so that if you get a leak, if something happens, all work stops until we check it. I think we've learned that we've got to do this differently than the way we were doing it before."
Archuleta says the department "attempted to do the right thing" by offering X-rays to staff and inmates who worked on maintenance crews. But Fort Lyon administrators haven't seen the results of those tests because of medical privacy laws. Not that a benign result at this stage means anything; although there are documented cases in the medical literature of intense, short-term exposure leading to asbestosis, the more typical case involves occupational exposure over a long time, with a latency period of up to forty years. Still, three inmates who contacted Westword claim that their results were positive for some kind of lung damage, including one who says that medical staff told him the calcification in his lungs was "most likely from asbestos exposure."
Many Fort Lyon inmates were never given X-rays at all. Coats says he asked for one and was refused because he hadn't worked in maintenance and thus was considered not at risk. "I was there longer than any of these guys they're X-raying," he sighs. "I'm kind of angry that they won't give me one."
After four years at Fort Lyon, Coats was sent to a halfway house in Denver a few months ago. His chronic stomach problems were recently diagnosed as giardia — something he apparently picked up at Fort Lyon when the water system, which draws on local wells, became contaminated with fecal matter a couple of years ago and had to be shut down for weeks. (DOC officials say the problem is fixed now; inmates say that guards still bring in bottled water for themselves and avoid the taps.)
Coats admits that he was known as a chronic complainer at Fort Lyon. He filed several grievances and was put in the hole his last week there. He says he's just grateful to be out of the place.
"They'll tell you to your face that if you keep talking about the problems they're having out there, you won't get parole," he insists. "You won't get the halfway house. Guys are scared. They want to go home. I don't blame 'em."
History Lesson #3
In the summer of 1867, work began on a new Fort Lyon to replace the flooded post. The latest (and final) location was a few miles east of Las Animas. Some of the original adobe structures along "officers' row" still stand today on the grounds of the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility, although time and the elements have had their way with them.
The new, improved post was soon visited by its first military vet in need of medical care. After an illustrious career as a trapper, guide and soldier, an ailing Kit Carson settled on a farm in nearby Boggsville. He came to the fort to seek the services of the post surgeon and ended up dying there of an aneurysm at age 59.
Troops from Fort Lyon continued to play a supporting role in the Indian wars, but the real fighting was elsewhere, with George Custer's Seventh Cavalry. In 1868, Custer hunted down William Bent's old friend Black Kettle, who'd pushed for the treaty with the whites and survived the Sand Creek Massacre. The Cheyenne chief died with dozens of his people in Oklahoma, in the Battle of Washita River.
A few months later, the Army decided it no longer needed a fort in southeastern Colorado. Two years after it opened, Fort Lyon was abandoned again.
In the spring of 2004, W. Thomas Bain, an industrial hygienist who works for the air-pollution-control division of the state health department, visited Fort Lyon twice in the course of three weeks. Bain was responding to inmate complaints that they were being forced to remove asbestos and threatened with disciplinary write-ups — which could affect their parole prospects — if they refused.
One inmate said that he'd worked in crawl spaces under staff housing for days at a time trying to fix steam-pipe leaks, a job that involved cutting through asbestos insulation covering the pipes. "I had white powder all over my clothes from cutting the asbestos," he wrote. "Before I started, I asked my boss if he would give me something to protect my eyes and nose and mouth when doing this job. I also told him I didn't no [sic] anything about asbestos. He told me it would not hurt me, just get under the house and get the job done."
The same inmate claimed he was ordered to dump debris from a pipe trench, including asbestos, out by some fish ponds, where the DOC's correctional-industries division raises koi and operates a pheasant farm.
The inmate's supervisor told Bain that the story was hogwash. No prisoners had been involved in any asbestos removal, he said, and no one was ever threatened with write-ups for refusing work. But Bain's subsequent investigation found asbestos debris piled exactly where the inmate said it would be. Donning protective gear, Bain attempted to enter the crawl space where the inmate had worked but decided to stay out after determining that the soil below the house was "grossly contaminated" with asbestos; stirring it up could "result in a substantial release of fibers into the occupied portions of the house."
Bain talked to the prison's "life safety officer" — who, it turned out, didn't have adequate training in asbestos issues and didn't know how to interpret asbestos inspection reports. It was the officer's house, he learned, that had the badly contaminated crawl space Bain had declined to enter. Bain also discovered that staffers' children had been playing around utility tunnels where asbestos debris had been dumped and that the debris had been raked across a yard by a prisoner. Deeming the contamination to be a major spill, Bain ordered that 160 square feet of dirt near the utility tunnel be sealed off to prevent access and further release of asbestos fibers.
"For all practical purposes...the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility did not have an asbestos program sufficient to prevent exposure," Bain wrote in his report. He recommended that the prison halt all inmate work on buildings until the DOC could hire an experienced asbestos coordinator.
Fort Lyon did not hire Montoya for another two years. In the meantime, prisoners continued to work on routine maintenance, and the problems kept multiplying. A Gobbell Hays team that arrived in the fall of 2004 to deal with the cleanup of the previous spill found DOC staff trying to apply a sealant over tainted soil in a crawl space of another house. The crew wore protective suits and respirators but had failed to seal the area effectively. The original spill area, which was supposed to have been sealed off with plastic sheeting, had been exposed again by wind and weather. And continuing steam leaks from aging pipes had damaged asbestos-laden walls and insulation in another location.
Bain found more trouble on an inspection in June 2005. Workers employed by the private contractor in charge of disposing of asbestos-containing materials, which must be specially bagged and taken to a hazmat landfill, strayed from proper procedure on several counts just in the short time Bain observed them. (Because of the glacial pace of the regulatory process, a warning letter noting the violations wasn't issued until last month, more than two years later.)
Asbestos has also complicated the prison's water problems. Water leaks in one tunnel exasperated the maintenance staff last year because of asbestos pipe insulation and asbestos contamination of the soil above the pipe. At the time, the prison was losing up to 50,000 gallons of water a day because of leaky pipes and had spent $24,000 in an effort to re-drill one well, only to come up with a dry hole. The situation led to restricting the hours for inmate showers, which further aggravated prisoners already worried about the blowing grit and dirt they'd acquired while working on the grounds.
Jerry Bachota, a commercial contractor who had experience with asbestos on the outside before a theft conviction brought him to Fort Lyon, says he clashed with staff about pulling up tiles that he recognized as containing asbestos; being ordered into crawl spaces that had warning signs about asbestos; and proper procedures to contain possible contamination. "I know how it's supposed to be done," Bachota says. "At first they sealed things off. Then, after the inspectors left, the plastic came down. Next thing you know, they had us working hot spots in the dirt. I was mowing lawns and digging fences well into this year. Other people still are."
Bachota likens his asbestos exposures to the proverbial ticking time bomb. "It's like HIV," he says. "It'll never show up in your X-ray, and one day you wake up and you're full-blown. What are you supposed to do? They were aware of this when they bought the property."
Asbestos coordinator Montoya says he reviews every work order to ensure that no possible asbestos issues are involved before inmates are permitted to do the work. But documents indicate that the procedure has only been in place for the past year, since Montoya was hired; state health inspectors haven't been able to confirm or disprove most inmate accounts of exposure prior to late 2006, in part because the renovations records the DOC maintained were so skimpy.
Montoya insists that the asbestos problems, including the much-debated soil contamination, are under control now. He personally went out on a mowing operation and tested air quality; the results yielded acceptable results, and most of the "hot spots" contain only trace amounts of asbestos. "Yes, we have contaminated soils, but we're way below where we have to be in terms of asbestos releasing into the air," he says. "If we have changing conditions or changing terrains, then we'll change how we need to go."
Bain's latest inspection came in August of this year. He found that the facility had "made demonstrable progress" in its asbestos program, but areas of concern remain, including the degree to which inmates could still be exposed to contaminated soil. The state health department is now reviewing the DOC's proposal for managing the soil in place rather than spending the tens of millions of dollars it would take to scrape off the contamination.
As for inmate claims of retaliation for refusing to work, the current warden, Michael Arellano, says he has an open-door policy for offenders and staff — but he's only been there a few weeks. His predecessor, Lou Archuleta, acknowledges that an inmate can get written up for refusing an assignment but says he doubts that would happen where asbestos is involved. "There would be no retaliation," he declares. "We're not going to jeopardize anybody's health and safety."
Recently, Bachota was moved to another prison. He claims that staff have messed with his paperwork and calculations on the amount of time he's supposed to serve, threatened to deny him admission to the honor camp he believes he's earned, and otherwise lowered the boom on him for complaining about asbestos at Fort Lyon.
"This is how the DOC gets back at inmates who blow the whistle," he says. "Every day, I'm having something thrown in my face."
History Lesson #4
The same year that the Army abandoned Fort Lyon, William Bent died, a heartbroken and anguished father. His sons Charles and George had joined the Dog Soldiers, the Cheyenne who refused to accept the treaty, and tried to drive the bluecoats from the plains. A price was put on Charles's head, and Bent disowned him before he expired of pneumonia.
In 1876, Colorado became a state. And Custer got his.
The old fort remained a ghost town for another thirty years. Then the Navy decided it would make a swell place for tuberculosis patients. They made a go of it for a few years, then turned it over to the United States Public Health Service, which handed it off to the Veterans Bureau. Stately brick buildings began to rise around the former parade ground.
A person visiting Fort Lyon in the 1950s would have found a comforting slice of mid-century America: a vast complex of modern conveniences and technology at the service of veterans of two world wars, set in a scenic corner of the rural landscape, the kind of place half the population still preferred to big cities. But in the decades that followed, the rapid growth of the Front Range, the development of clinics in Colorado Springs and Pueblo for the dwindling, aging group of veterans, and the increasing isolation of the area led to Fort Lyon's decline.
By the late 1990s, Fort Lyon was ranked the second-most inefficient VA facility in the nation, a distinction based on overall costs per client served.
Cheap Fixes and Hidden Costs
Seven years ago, when Stephen Raher first learned that the state was thinking about turning an obscure veterans' hospital into a geriatric prison, he launched a fervent but lonely campaign to stop it. The organization Raher worked for at the time, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, was strongly opposed to further expansion of the state's burgeoning prison system, and the Fort Lyon project struck Raher as poorly planned and thinly justified. The main rationale for turning Fort Lyon into a prison seemed to be that the feds were willing to hand it over for nothing.
At legislative hearings, Raher presented a range of logical, economically grounded arguments against the new prison. The DOC would have trouble bringing qualified medical staff to the area, he pointed out. It made more sense to house special-needs inmates closer to urban medical facilities, and many of the so-called geriatric prisoners (the DOC defined "geriatric" as inmates who were fifty or older) were eligible for parole. The operating costs would make Fort Lyon the most expensive medium-custody prison in the state, at a time when increasing budget restrictions were making it more difficult to fund the type of re-entry programs that could help relieve the overcrowding pressures the prison system was facing.
As for the argument that taking over the facility was the way to save jobs in the area, Raher rejected that one outright. There had to be a better economic engine for eastern Colorado than prisons; the region already had the huge Arkansas Valley, Limon and Sterling facilities, as well as private prisons in Burlington, Las Animas and Olney Springs. "I'm willing to bet that any citizen of Las Animas could come up with better ways to use $30 million to encourage economic development than building a geriatric prison," he told one state senate committee.
In 2001, Raher's group managed to halt construction briefly, after he discovered that the DOC was already cutting down trees before the environmental review process had been completed. But nothing could stop the inevitable march of the prison bureaucracy, which kept expanding steadily throughout the lean and lush years of the Owens administration. Now in law school, Raher still marvels at the way the DOC steamrolled the acquisition past lawmakers.
"They were so eager to get their hands on it," he recalls. "They made a lot of claims about what they were getting that turned out to be incorrect. They weren't making a public case of any physical plant issues. Yes, there was asbestos, there were other problems, but they were completely minimized. All they were focused on were the benefits."
Anthony Swift has a hard time seeing the benefits. Having sampled prison life in four states — Kentucky, Indiana, Oklahoma, Colorado — the 37-year-old ex-roofer has some strong views on what makes one lockup worse than another. In his experience, Fort Lyon was the worst of the lot.
Lying in a hospital bed in Denver, he shifts his leg painfully to show off his prime souvenir from his stay at Fort Lyon: a deep, quarter-sized hole in his ankle that affords an unimpeded view of his Achilles tendon. He got bit by spiders in Fort Lyon's sweat lodge, he explains. (Under federal law, the DOC is required to provide facilities for a wide spectrum of inmate religious beliefs, including sweat lodges.) A prison nurse gave him a bag of ice and sent him limping back to work. Within a few days, he developed a virulent staph infection, was sent to a halfway house in Denver and ended up in the hospital. "If they would have done something for me back at Fort Lyon, none of this would have happened," he growls, rubbing the griffin emblazoned on his right arm.
Swift hopes that staph is the only thing he picked up at Fort Lyon. He's serving a one-year sentence on cocaine and fraud charges and was only at the prison a few weeks. But during that time, he worked on several roofing projects, with nothing more than gloves to protect him. His supervisor told him that the asbestos was only in the tar under the shingles and thus safe, but Swift had his suspicions about some dark-yellow insulation board that crumbled like crazy when he touched it. When he was a roofer in the civilian world, such stuff was handled by guys in special suits and masks. But not at Fort Lyon.
"We put it in trash bags and threw it off the roof," he says. "Where it went from there, I have no idea. A couple guys wouldn't touch it, and they sent them back to their cell. One of the guys actually transferred to another job."
Asked why he kept working if he didn't think it was safe, Swift shakes his head. "Prison isn't what it was years ago," he says. "Prison now is more of a mind game. They keep you down by telling you they're going to give you a disciplinary action and add time to your sentence. I only have a year to do. I'm waiting on this halfway house. One write-up would have kicked me out of it. I can't quit work. That's refusing a direct order."
Although it's going to take some time for his leg to heal, Swift is relieved to be in Denver and headed for a halfway house. Even before the spiders got him, he didn't feel well at Fort Lyon. The water, the air — something seemed wrong from day one.
"Something about the place made me feel sick, fatigued, a little loopy," he says now. "Seems like I've been sick since I got there."
To read Alan Prendergast's previous prison coverage, go to the Crime & Punishment archive.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.