In Colorado’s Prison Valley, corrections are a way of life
Students here don’t do fire safety drills, they do escaped-prisoner training — closing blinds, hiding in a corner or closet.
Outside, officers often swarm, releasing search dogs in exercises to track runaway inmates whose boots carry a special notch in the sole for easier tracing. Longtime residents can recall finding in their garage or woodshed muddy prison uniforms abandoned during an escape.
Those inmates who remain behind bars help shape the economy here, preparing and selling mailboxes, fly rods, flowers, even water buffalo meat — a thriving prison industry with prices that undercut miffed local merchants, who urge customers to patronize law-abiding people, not convicted criminals.
In the place known as Prison Valley, home to 11 state and federal lockups, more than 7,500 inmates do time near two communities that have the feel of college towns — an odd coupling that can create tension and conflict perhaps found nowhere else in America.
Fremont County (population 46,000) has Colorado’s biggest per capita population of prison inmates, a rate that’s also one of the nation’s highest.
Prison life has long been second nature in an area where territorial prison officers once brought inmates home for house repairs and low-security female prisoners walked the streets in their prison uniforms. In the 1980s, prison building, and the rolling out of coiled razor wire, began in earnest. A tourism ad once invited: “Do Time With Us.”
The seven state and four federal institutions are located in Cañon City (population 16,000) and neighboring Florence (population 3,800). The inmates make up 38% of the two cities’ populations.
There’s the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, an imposing stone fortress opened in 1871 that sits at the end of Main Street in Cañon City, housing aged and infirm inmates. In the nearby countryside are four lower-security work camps and grim walled and barb-wired complexes.
The most ominous is ADX Florence, the federal “supermax” prison known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” built partially underground to house offenders deemed the highest of security risks, including Sept. 11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Residents relish life in Cañon City and Florence, with their quaint downtowns, leafy streets and easy access to fishing and river-rafting. And Fremont County is safe, they say: In half a century, only five inmates successfully escaped, the last in 1976. Between 2000 and 2012, all 50 who broke free were caught.
“Convicts who do escape,” said Ginny Hadley, 75, the owner of a Cañon City western shop, “don’t stick around for long.”
Still, there’s a saying about life here: Even those on the outside live on the inside.
More than half the county’s jobs stem from the corrections industry. Everyone knows someone — a brother, aunt or father — who works for the state Department of Corrections.
When he applied for a prison job years ago, Jody Evango already had 26 relatives working in Prison Valley facilities.
Some locals feel tension living among stressed-out prison guards. Many suffer from corrections fatigue, taking a detached attitude from the prison into the community — suspicious, rarely sociable, few serving on civic boards.
“They strut around in their uniforms and little silver badges with their ‘I’m a prison guard’ attitude, like, ‘We own this town,’” Evango said. “Well, I worked out there too. Who cares?”
But what’s it really like to live here? Let’s allow some locals to tell the tale.
For 14 years, Christian Snelson worked as a correctional officer, half of that time in Fremont County.
He finally wearied of the hard-line attitude he used with inmates, one he also brought to his children: “Officers keep up that front even at home. It may not be intentional, but they do it.”
In 2006, Snelson quit the correctional life and opened the Good Thyme Cafe in downtown Cañon City, a diner he envisioned as a family gathering place.
But prison followed him.
The restaurant is now a favorite haunt of corrections officers. “They know who I am,” he said. “They feel safe. They don’t have to worry about anyone messing with their food.”
While he says every parolee deserves a second chance, Snelson won’t hire anyone who’s done time. He does security checks on applicants and looks for telltale prison tattoos.
Ex-cons are welcome as customers, though. “Their money is as good as anyone else’s. It spends real well.”
Jan McLaughlin has brought religion to inmates here since 1986. It’s challenging work, but prisoners are often the easy part. At first, she got a cool reception from guards, who asked, “Why are you doing this?”
“One prison worker told me, ‘What do you do with trash? You burn it,’” McLaughlin recalled.
Tensions have eased. But McLaughlin, the director of Prayer for Prisoners, a religious nonprofit, recently called the pastor of a local church for help in her mission.
“He hung up,” she said. “Corrections families attend churches here. Pastors are afraid that if they show heart to prisoners, they’ll lose money and congregants.”
Arlynn Miller disagrees.
The Mennonite church member runs New Horizons, a program through which families have provided long-term care for 200 infants born to women in prison. Children are regularly taken to visit their mothers and eventually returned if the parolee can guarantee a safe atmosphere.
A thrift store the group runs to help finance its child-care work has hired the grown children of inmates.
Miller, 44, and wife, Nina, have legally adopted three children of female inmates. There’s no shame in what he does. “The community,” he says, “supports us.”
Helina Dabrowska runs a Heartbreak Hotel.
For $55 a night, the wives, mothers and children of Prison Valley inmates often stay at the Riviera motel in Florence. Dabrowska is a gentle house mother to families in need — for women like one named Joy, who for years came to visit Kaczynski until she died of cancer.
“They’re devoted ladies,” Dabrowska said. “They come back until their men are released.”
South African Jacqueline Law has come here for years to see her fiance. She stays at the Riviera for six months.
She loathes her prison visits; the gruff suspicions thrown by guards often wound her.
Dabrowska knows. Since 1988, she has counseled hundreds of families, once helping a woman don her white dress for a wedding ceremony behind prison walls. Many bring their men to meet her after their release.
“Love,” she said, “is love.”
Sheriff James Beicker eased his SUV through Cañon City. Now in his fourth term, he recalled his first lesson in Prison Valley.
At a conference post-Sept. 11, an FBI agent asked for the Fremont County sheriff. “You poor bastard,” the agent said. “If you don’t think Al Qaeda hasn’t pulled up your website to look at you, you’re wrong. We know they have.”
Once, officers from a high-security prison here delivered an inmate to Beicker’s jail to await extradition. “They wheeled him in here like Hannibal Lecter and said, ‘Put him in a cell and don’t even look at him until the Connecticut people get here,’” he recalled. “That kind of spooked me.”
Fremont County, Beicker said, can get on your nerves.
Before running for sheriff, Beicker, 52, spent years as a correctional officer here. His wife, in-laws and brother all still work for the Department of Corrections.
Prison work, he says, changes people: “It’s hard not to become cynical. Prisoners are manipulative. The town is filled with people who’ve gotten harder.”
About 100 parolees live in Fremont County, bringing about a sense of unease among correctional officers, who don’t like running into men they once locked behind bars.
“See that stack?” Beicker had said earlier, pointing to half a dozen files. “They’re concealed-weapons permit applications, many from correctional officers. I joke that everyone is Fremont County is armed.”
He noted that some inmates are temporarily let out for work projects, cleaning roads and fighting fires. Their efforts make the county a better place, he said.
Just as the prisons color life here, their presence is felt even in death. Beicker drove to the cemetery and stopped at an area called Woodpecker Hill, where unclaimed inmate bodies are buried under narrow metal markers.
“It’s sad to be buried without family,” he said. “People make mistakes. They’re still people.”
Then he stood silent here in the most forlorn corner of Prison Valley.
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