Fort Lyon prison closing proposed by John Hickenlooper: Adios to a poisoned pen

Among the painful budget cuts proposed by Governor John Hickenlooper on Tuesday, one long-overdue move should earn points from prison reformers as well as bean counters -- shutting down the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility, a geriatric hoosegow on the eastern plains that was supposed to be a bargain and turned into a money pit and a health hazard.

Fort Lyon was a going concern for the Department of Corrections for less than ten years, and the "decommissioning" planned for this August is a concession of failure. Its closing will be a big hit to the job market in Bent County, and it isn't clear what will be done with the hundreds of aging, sick and disabled inmates who were supposed to get care there. Still, trying to revive a rural economy with prison jobs isn't such a bright idea to start with, and Fort Lyon may have done more harm than good for the "special needs" population it was supposed to serve.

The federal government turned over Fort Lyon, a decrepit veterans' hospital ninety miles east of Pueblo, to the state for the grand sum of one dollar back in 2001. At the transfer ceremony, then-governor Bill Owens declared that the deal would be "a lot cheaper than building a prison from the ground up." But, as detailed in my 2007 feature "Poisoned Pen," that turned out to be a sucker bet.

Like the VA, the DOC had trouble attracting qualified medical personnel to such a remote area, and the prison never housed the numbers of mentally ill and geriatric inmates that had been envisioned. The place was loaded with asbestos, too. Not only did abatement costs soar much higher than administrators expected, but 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 -- prisoners complained that corrections officers brought in their own bottled supply while the residents had to drink stuff from taps that was fizzy, funky and smelly -- and with the aging infrastructure.

Fort Lyon has also been dogged by grievances and lawsuits over alleged substandard health care. Far from saving money, it's been a major stumbling block in the DOC's struggles to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards in a long-running court case.

True, it's never a happy day when jobs disappear from southeastern Colorado. But there should be some kind of humbling lesson here for bureaucrats keen on boosting their real-estate portfolio. When someone offers you the opportunity of a lifetime, a unique fixer-upper for one dollar, it's sometimes best to walk away.

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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