A small mountain town shows prisons can be good neighbors

  • On guard at a federal prison in Fremont County, Colorado

    Canon City Daily Record

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Colorado's prison slayer.

When a new $223 million maximum security federal prison was recently completed in Caûon City, Colo., people began to call the central Colorado community the "Alcatraz of the Rockies."

But prisons are nothing new for Fremont County: it first hosted a prison in 1871, before Colorado was a state, and it hasn't looked back since.

Today, nine state prisons and four federal prisons provide the economic backbone of the county, says Steve Madone, executive director of the Fremont County Economic Corporation, a private nonprofit group. One-half of the county payroll comes from public-sector jobs related to the prisons, he says.

But Madone, who left the county at age 17 only to return last year at age 45, says the county's reliance on prisons hasn't deterred other businesses from settling in the mountain-ringed valley, and it hasn't destroyed the county's small-town feel.

"We still have clean air, and we're still a good place for families," says Madone. "The prisons have been good for us."

The county unemployment rate is now at just 2.9 percent and the median income has grown to $30,400. The county's population also jumped from 32,000 in 1990 to 38,000 in 1994. Of that population, 6,200 are state and federal prisoners. The only drawback, says Madone, is that most of the jobs available at the prisons are entry-level. Supervisors are transferred in from elsewhere.

Madone says that although Fremont County would consider additional prisons, it is making a push to diversify its economy. His group has encouraged the county to offer sweet deals - including free land and tax breaks - to new businesses considering a move to Fremont County.

The strategy seems to have worked. Within the last 10 months, six new companies bringing 130 jobs have come to the airport industrial park, he says, including an electronics manufacturer from San Jose, Calif.

Not everyone in Fremont County welcomes the prisons. River-rafting companies using the Arkansas River have long complained that every time a big storm hits, sewage ponds from the prisons overflow and pollute the river.

B.J. Plaskitt, a reporter with the Longmont Times-Call who has covered the prisons in the past, says real estate values are depressed in a five-block section of Canon City where the families of inmates live.

But overall, Canon City has a low crime rate, Plaskitt says, and entry-level prison officers - many with limited educations - earn as much as a teacher.

High Country News Classifieds