CO Prison Towns Waiting for Ax To Fall

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Storefronts, many empty, line the courthouse square in Sterling, CO. [Photo:CPR/MVerlee]

The cities and towns that house Colorado’s 22 prisons may feel a bit like they’re on trial themselves right now. The number of Coloradans behinds bars has been declining for years, so the state’s preparing to close at least one more prison. A report coming out Thursday will recommend which one should be next. And wherever that ax falls, the surrounding community is likely to be hard hit.

[Scroll down to read Megan's story]

Past CPR prison coverage:

Critics: Fort Lyon Redevelopment Plan is a Step Backward [April 22, 2013]

Will the Homeless Find Healing at Fort Lyon? [Feb. 19, 2013]

As Prison Closes, Town Questions Its Future [Dec. 8, 2011]

Budget Breakdown: A Small Town Loses Its Prison [Mar. 1, 2011]

Prison Closings Lead to Job Losses [Jun. 17, 2010]

Walsenburg Losing 188 Jobs with Prison Closing [Mar. 30, 2010]


Prisons Big Business to Smaller Communities

Viewers of the many hard time reality shows out there know Sterling Correctional Facility as a rough and dramatic place. But for residents of the city of Sterling on the eastern plains, the big prison down the road isn’t just a place that means business. It’s a place that brings business.

Sitting in Quilts-N-Creations, a tailoring and crafts store in downtown Sterling, with her infant grandson on her shoulder, owner Leta Propst flips through stacks of folded uniforms. The prison, with its 850 employees, supplies her business with a steady stream of customers.

"Our piles of sowing never quit," Probst said, "With the guards, they need their pants hemmed and they get new issues of clothes, I’m not sure how many times a year, but when they do, we’re just filled clear to the brim with sowing."

Sterling Correctional Facility is far and away the largest employer in Logan county, and businesses here all tell the same story: losing the prison would hit their bottom lines hard.

Being so dependent on a single employer makes a city like Sterling intensely vunlerable, according to Paul Gorte, head of the Logan County Economic Development Corporation.

"You’re always concerned about what would happen [if they close] and how you’d have to do it," Gorte said. "It’s always in the back of your mind, but you hope you never have to face it."

The state has set up a $3 million grant program to help whichever community loses a prison try to recruit replacement businesses. But Gorte believes that’s just a fraction of what will be needed. He compares a city trying to attract a new employer to a person applying for jobs: it’s much easier to get one if you already have one.

"As you’re driving on [highway] 76 at night, you see the bright lights of the prison, and when they’re gone, there’s something missing there. And that’s a statement to people who pass by," said Gorte. "If you don’t have an employer there, then are you tainted to another one who says, 'well, they left, so there must be something wrong with you.'"

State Weighing Multiple Criteria for Closing

State officials hit the road last week for a series of meetings explaining how the prison closure process will work and to convey the message that while fewer people in prison may be good for Colorado as a whole, they understand it will be bad news for any community that loses a facility.

The prison closure process starts in earnest on Thursday with the release of an independent report evaluating which facilities are no longer needed to efficiently house Colorado's incarcerated population. Much of the political debate that follows will likely be around whether to close a public or private prison. The final decision, though, will fall on the legislature's Joint Budget Committee and Governor Hickenlooper's budget chief, Henry Sobanet.

Sobanet says he's not interested in who owns a prison. Instead, he'll be looking at the age and maintenance cost of facilities, the types of prisoners they house and programs they offer, and how big an economic impact the closure of a specific prison will have on its surrounding community.

By most of those measures, Sterling Correctional, which is large and new, is likely safe. But that doesn't stop officials there from feeling the same anxiety prison towns across Colorado are experiencing.

Pain of Closures Slow to Heal

Hickenlooper’s administration is trying to learn from past closures and mitigate the hardships this change will bring, according to Sobanet. In the last four years, the state has shuttered six prisons. But redeveloping those properties hasn’t been easy.

Four years after it closed, the private prison in Walsenburg still sits empty. Ask Huerfano county administrator John Galusha what that’s done to the local economy, and he doesn’t have to look far for an example. Galusha recently bought a four-thousand square foot house in Walsenburg for $155,000.

Depressed home prices are only one impact of the prison's closing. A higher unemployment rate is another, as are higher sewer bills for the remaining residents. The county had just built a larger treatment plant to accomodate waste from the prison when the facility closed. Now that plant's running at half-capacity.

The prison "was kind of the only show in town," Galusha said.

So far, redevelopment opportunities have proven elusive. Huerfano county’s looked at moving its offices into prison buildings, but renovations would cost too much. Galusha traveled to China to try to recruit a solar panel manufacturer to take over the facility, but that plan fell through.

As for what advice Galusha would give to the next community to go through what Huerfano county is facing?

"Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help, but know in the long run you have to do it yourself," he said.

For prison communities across Colorado waiting to find out whether their facility will be the next to close, that could be a bitter lesson to learn.

[Photo: CPR/MVerlee]