Small Colorado Towns Brace for Devastating Prison Closures

TRINIDAD, Colo. — A rapidly deteriorating prison population in Colorado is forcing state officials to consider closing prisons. Last year, the State Office of Planning and Budgeting hired CNA, a nonprofit consulting and research organization based in Alexandria, Va., to study the state’s prison facilities and correctional needs. Now the completion date for that report, June 30, is fast approaching and many citizens are becoming nervous in small towns that rely on prisons to support their shrinking economies.

CNA’s most recent stop was in Trinidad, where Richard Harlan, a former warden at the Trinidad Correctional Facility, voiced his concerns at a public meeting held in the Las Animas County Courthouse.

“With the loss of jobs in natural gas development and the closure of the New Elk Mine, this is about our last industry,” Harlan said. “This is absolutely critical. I don’t know what the numbers are now, but when I retired about 75 percent of our staff lived in Trinidad and Las Animas County. It was a huge number of jobs, a lot of families and there’s no other opportunity. It’s absolutely critical that we maintain and keep this.”

The Trinidad facility was opened in 2001 and currently employs 150 people, 80 of which are from Las Animas County.

The rural nature of some of the towns that rely on correctional centers makes the situation even more drastic. One prison town, Olney Springs has less than 400 residents, relying on a private prison with capacity for 1,700 inmates to stay afloat.

Despite the concerns of citizens on the local level, some legislators are voicing their belief that the writing is already on the wall.

"It looks like the whole system should be shrinking," said State Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado at a recent legislative session where the Joint Budget Committee went over the numbers on the declining inmate population.

“Unfortunately, a lot of those smaller communities were sold a bill of goods about [how] this is going to be good for your community — and it did create an economic boom for them," said Douglas Wilson, the state’s chief public defender. "But now with the populations going down, I think the legislature’s going to have to make some tough decisions about if they close, and if so, where do they close the prisons."

The state correctional system already had over 2,100 empty beds at the end of 2012 and many experts predict that number could jump to as many as 3,600 by the end of the 2013-14 fiscal year. While those numbers are significant, even more shocking is the fact that the state has 7,500 fewer inmates than it once projected to have in 2013.

The Trinidad facility already shut down one wing of its operations because of the declining numbers last year and several prisons were closed completely. Fort Lyon Correctional Facility was closed in the last year and a half, along with State Penitentiary II in Canon City. Despite these changes, the gap between capacity and need is still large enough for additional closures to seem very likely in the near future.