Monday, March 14, 2011

Fort Lyon prison closure - cutting costs vs. cutting jobs

Bent County is bracing for what locals say could be a back breaker—a decision pending before legislative budgeters next week over whether to close a prison in the area.

The Fort Lyon prison lies just outside the Lower Arkansas River community of Las Animas in Bent County and is home to nearly 500 elderly and infirm minimum-security inmates. The prison employs just over 200 people in a county that has a population of 4,700. County officials say the economic impact of shutting the facility would be the equivalent of losing 12,000 jobs in Denver.

The move to close the prison is a cost-saving measure endorsed by the Department of Corrections and Gov. John Hickenlooper as well as a signal that recidivism rates are on the decline—generally a welcome development. In southeastern Colorado, however, the potential for closing the prison is a cause of great concern.

“I really question whether this facility is the right one to eliminate due to recidivism,” says Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City. “The cost per inmate will actually go up when they are taken out of this facility.”

Grantham argues that since the inmate population served by the facility consists of prisoners with special needs due to their advanced age or infirmities, the cost of their care would escalate when they are transferred to prisons ill-equipped for their needs. He likens the care to that of an assisted-living facility.

Given the dubious cost savings, Grantham further asserts that the job loss would not only be unjustified but also devastating to local communities despite promises that the employees could relocate within the prison system.

“Jobs are a huge factor in this decision,” said Grantham. “There really isn’t another industry in the area that could absorb these employees who currently have good-paying jobs, own homes and contribute a large share of revenue.”

Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, however, counters that the closure is the responsible path to take when fewer prison beds are needed.

“We’re at a point where we’ve reduced recidivism, and now we have a responsibility to close a prison,” said Waller. “Nobody wants to see jobs lost, but the fact of the matter is that we’ve gotten smarter on crime, not tougher, and we can save money by closing a prison.”

Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, says it’s simply the wrong way to approach a reduction of prison beds.

“This is a relocation of jobs from our area to metro areas,” said McKinley. “Our people will end up on unemployment.”

The Joint Budget Committee will meet to discuss the closure on Tuesday after the House and Senate adjourn for the day.

Via - Colorado News Agency

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