Fort Lyon prison "repurposing": Five best new uses for an aging hoosgow

A delegation from Bent County and Governor John Hickenlooper's office went to Washington this week in an effort to interest the federal government in "repurposing" the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility, a remote and troubled state prison on the eastern plains that's scheduled to close next year as part of the gov's budget-slashing plan.

The trip is a lot like trying to return an old junker to the used-car lot. The feds don't want Fort Lyon, which was once a renowned veterans hospital but had, by the late 1990s, become a financial sinkhole of aging infrastructure and asbestos problems. The Veterans Administration was so eager to get rid of it that, in 2001, it sold the place to the Colorado Department of Corrections for the grand sum of one dollar.

As explained in my 2007 feature "Poisoned Pen," the DOC's plan to transform the sprawling, century-old campus into a facility for geriatric and disabled prisoners ran into logistical and funding problems. Like the VA, the DOC had trouble attracting qualified medical personnel to such an isolated area, and asbestos abatement costs soared much higher than anticipated. Staff complained of unwitting exposures, and inmates claimed to have been conscripted to do removal work without proper equipment, prompting an investigation by state health inspectors. There were problems with the water, too; corrections officers brought in their own bottled supply while the residents had to drink stuff from taps that was fizzy and funky.

The prison's closure represents a huge hit to the economy in southeastern Colorado, and the governor has vowed to do what he can to find someone to take over the white elephant. "It's a wonderful campus and could be put to great use by a host of different federal agencies or other businesses," Hickenlooper declared in a statement announcing the delegation's trip.

The campus is quite striking, and we hope the delegation meets with some success. If not, here are some other public- and private-sector options well worth exploring for keeping Fort Lyon occupied and generating badly needed revenue:

5. House of Horrors. Why mess with fixing the place up at all? Keep the buildings "as is," and market Fort Lyon as an eco-themed haunted-house attraction to hip young urbanites who've never been inside an unrehabbed structure built prior to 1950. Strong potential for Halloween and Survivor-themed private parties in which contestants vie to see who can last the longest on contaminated well water, starchy food, substandard medical care, asbestos removal tasks and other routine convict fare.

4. Regional office, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Long before it was a VA hospital, the original Fort Lyon was an Army post -- and the launching point for Colonel John M. Chivington's dawn attack on a peaceful, mostly unarmed village of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864. The Sand Creek Massacre set the tone for the corrupt and inept handling of native tribes by the BIA over the past century and a half, so it would be fitting for the government to consign bureaucrats to Fort Lyon as part of a larger plan for expiation and reparations.

3. Nongender Academy. The loss of Dr. Marci Bowers and her world-famous sex-change clinic was a sad day for Trinidad -- and southern Colorado. Fort Lyon can find its own niche in gender-identity issues by establishing a safe haven for parents who want their children to grow up gender-neutral until they're old enough to decide for themselves what sex they want to be (if any). What better place than Bent County for such an enterprise? No mass-media pressures to conform here, no confusing signals about gender at all, just lots of coed softball and study of sexless literature, including the complete works of Henry James and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

2. The Dan Maes Institute for Recovering Conspiracy Theorists. Think of it as a quiet, spa-like lair, where former undercover operatives and crusading talk-show hosts can relax and slowly get a grip on reality. Tucked away from the pernicious venom of the mainstream media, a plagiarizing gubernatorial candidate might eventually come to accept responsibility for his own defeat, a death-er might be persuaded that Osama bin Laden really did expire, and similarly afflicted private citizens might decide that everything isn't the government's fault after all.

1. Great Plains Repurposing College. Since Fort Lyon has already been repurposed several times in its 150-year history, it makes perfect sense to convert the campus to a training ground for others facing a challenging transition from the old economy to the new. Here, former manufacturing concerns will learn how to transform their stalled production lines into marijuana grow operations; here, small businessmen who used to deal in produce, office supplies or small appliance repair will learn mobile app- and Twitter-based services, such as real-time parking space alerts and booking doggie-day-care appointments for busy professionals. Our slogan: "If it's not working, it's time to get repurposed!"

More from our News archive: "Fort Lyon prison closing proposed by John Hickenlooper: Adios to a poisoned pen."