The head of Colorado’s prisons was shot and killed last month by a former inmate who the Associated Press reports was erroneously released. Colorado court officials have vowed to review the procedures that allowed the error to happen. In the meantime, 45 miles south of Colorado Springs sits Cañon City, home to seven of the state’s prisons. For Life of the Law, Jill Rothenberg reports on this prison town–its history, its people, and the correctional facilities that touch all aspects of life there.
If Highway 50 is known as the country’s loneliest highway where it cuts through the Nevada and Utah deserts, it also becomes the windiest in the forty miles between Pueblo and Cañon City, Colorado, where miles of dusty brown plains end in snow-capped mountains in every direction. You know you’re in the state’s high desert when your car, windows rattling with a high-pitched squeal, is jerked by the same undertow that sends tumbleweeds, dust, and roadside debris blowing in a crazy storm across the highway.
You also know you’re approaching Cañon City, a community of about 16,000, when in addition to the signs advertising Big Daddy’s Diner, train rides to the world’s highest suspension bridge, the Royal Gorge and bargain hotel rooms, you also look to your left and miles in the distance see a group of somber gray buildings with what look like black slits from the bottom to the top. As you get closer, you understand that these are windows, and that the tall metal posts similar to what you would see in a football stadium are, when the sun goes down, actually floodlights and watchtowers strung with coiled concertina wire.
In other words, a prison.
But far from the only one. This is the East Cañon City Prison Complex, a quick left turn off of Highway 50 as you’re approaching Cañon City and the gateway to what is frequently called “the Alcatraz of the Rockies. ” In this high desert valley spanning the onetime booming steel town of Pueblo, moving southwest through the tiny town of Florence and its massive cement plant and rows of antique shops, and dropping down through Cañon City’s strip malls and Old West Main Street, there is a prison population the size of a small town.
There are seven state prisons in Cañon City, the seat of Fremont County. In nearby Pueblo, there are three. And in tiny Florence, population 4,000, once known only for its oil reserves and cement plant, there is the nearly decade-old Federal Correctional Complex which houses, among other facilities, the Supermax–home to many of the country’s notorious and dangerous criminals.
That’s 13 prisons and nearly 9,000 inmates.
Fremont County spans 1,530 miles and has a population of 47,500, a mostly rural county of about 30 people per square mile. The Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are the largest and highest-paying employers, with the State’s salary for a correctional officer starting at $32,000, according to the 2013-2014 DOC projected budget. In a county with a per capita income of approximately $17,400, that’s a good salary, especially with a full pension at retirement.
The risks and stress of working in the prison system are obvious, especially in light of the recent killing of Colorado DOC Director Tom Clements at his home north of Colorado Springs on March 19 by suspect Evan Spencer Ebel, a former inmate. Last year an inmate at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility south of Pueblo killed one prison worker and wounded another. But prison jobs remain prized in this community.
From the miles of ranchland cut with canyons to the world’s highest suspension bridge in Cañon City, which hangs 956 feet high and spans a quarter mile across the Royal Gorge, almost everyone you talk to either works for the prisons or knows someone who does.
“At one time this area was known for having the highest per capita prisoner rate in the world,” said Jan McLaughlin,” who runs Prayers for Prisoners, a Cañon City-based mission for prisoners worldwide. “This is job security for many, but we’re warehousing people. It’s very sad that we’re so dependent on prison income.”
Nonetheless, it’s the reality for generations of families who have worked for the Department of Corrections as guards, nurses, administrative staff or social services. Like many small towns in the West transformed by mining and the loss of jobs in the vanishing railroad, farming, steel and ranch industries, Cañon City has had to make its peace with change, whether this is opening its doors to tourists and developers or trying to attract new businesses. But unlike others, it has been shaped by its biggest employer—the Department of Corrections—and can never escape its shadow. The prison industry owns this town.
While there have been many necessary investigations into the treatment of prisoners, especially those in solitary confinement and maximum security units like the Supermax, what about the other side—the people who work in the prisons each day and more broadly, the people who live in the towns where these prisons are located?
It might be surreal for visitors to the area to consider that Unabomber Ted Kazinsky, World Trade Center bomber Zacarias Moussaoui, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, FBI spy Robert Hansen, and others are living underground in cement cells 23 hours a day in solitary confinement only miles away from where they’re having coffee at the Pour House Café on Main St. in Florence. But what is life like for those who call this home, who go into the prisons to work each day, and who live nearby, outside the walls?
Spend some time in Cañon City and you get a glimpse into what longtime resident Mike Merlino, owner of Merlino’s Belvedere Restaurant and a former president of the Chamber of Commerce, calls “a strong sense of community.”
“Living here, you get the benefits of a small town,” he said, pointing out that despite the strong summer tourist season at the Royal Gorge and nearby rafting, fishing, and zip line tours, “it’s still hard to stay in business” due to the recovering economy. As for the prisons, he says, “we feel totally safe here.”
Cañon City was settled as a mining town in the midst of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of the 1860s. It’s a close-knit community with over 60 churches, a town park, many festivals throughout the spring and summer, world-class rafting, a winery at the Holy Cross Abbey—and the prisons. You’re just as likely to see a rancher wearing boots and spurs in Coyote’s Coffee Den as you will a Department of Corrections guard on the way to work.
It was also the state headquarters and a national center of the Ku Klux Klan, who began publishing the Rocky Mountain Klansman in 1924 and proclaimed in its first issue:
“…we have no time for individual or organized criminality in Cañon City or in Fremont County and we expect to make our laws so potent and our officers of the law so courageous through public sentiment that both law and officers will be a terror to offenders against the law of the land.”
The KKK’s part in Cañon City history is far from secret, with a large public archive at the town historical society and a recent course on the subject at one of the special senior courses for retirees at the town’s branch of Pueblo Community College.
“I remember seeing men on horses with white hoods at a parade in Cañon City when I was 9 or 10,” said Austin Clark, who was a guard and nurse in the forensic unit at the State Hospital in Pueblo during the 1970s and 80s.
Continue driving on Highway 50 into town and you see the Home Depot on the left as you make your way into the outskirts of Cañon City and the Fremont Correctional Facility next door, with the usual parade of neon hotel signs, chain restaurants, the ubiquitous Wal-Mart, Auto Zone, and Safeway as you go around a rotary and head down Main St, which is one part American Graffiti, one part Old West, and one part empty storefronts.
Though the town’s historic and once-thriving St. Cloud Hotel is boarded up, the ornate letters on its sign are no longer lit, and glass window storefronts hold For Rent signs, the street still shows signs of life. There are customers in Beads n Bullets and Cañon Western Wear. The Ruby Slipper, a women’s consignment shop, is doing brisk business on a late March day, with the tourists (who come to ride the train up to the Royal Gorge) breezing into the shop to look around. A bit further down the street, the Royal Gorge Brewery and Pizza Madness are also open for business. And across from the Royal Gorge Depot, the Cup and Cone is selling a lot of ice cream. It’s clear that Cañon City is a town trying to grow with the times and hang on to its historic past.
But what makes it different than Anytown, U.S.A. are the light-brown and gray stone buildings that you would have no choice but to run into if you kept going on Main: the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, nicknamed “Old Max,” the state’s oldest prison.
With its barbed wire and watchtower visible from Main St., the medium-security prison employs 252 staff and has 816 inmates, with 120 others waiting for transfer to other state facilities. Like most comparable prisons, it’s not located away from the center of the population. It’s right in the middle of it. A red train that used to be a kid’s ride on visiting day is painted with the name of the prison and still sits in the grass facing Highway 50.
Built in 1871, six years before Colorado became a state, the prison began with three inmates. “This was the first prison in the area,” said museum administrator Stacey Cline. “It was the Wild West. Each town had a jail with maybe a cell or two, but couldn’t keep up with arrests day to day. They would let someone go and they would commit another crime.” The Territory of Colorado went on to petition the federal government for a prison, with Canon City, Golden, Denver, and Boulder in the running. As local lore has it, one of Canon City’s founders and the first sheriff of Fremont County, Anson Rudd, won the bid because of his support for Denver as capital of the state.
“Prior to the 1870s, the typical Colorado town’s jail functioned more as an overnight dry-out facility for inebriated “guests,” rather than a long-term confinement facility for felons,” says Larry Thomas Ward in his book Cañon City Colorado: Every Picture Tells a Story. “Rarely was a person held for more than a night or two, no matter the infraction alleged or conceded. Simply put, in spite of any legal conviction, there were no facilities within the territory to incarcerate prisoners for an extended period of time. Many outlaws who overstayed their welcome were either simply released—or hung from the nearest tree.”
The Colorado Prison Museum, which shares a wall with the prison, is a long hallway of 32 cells with displays of what life in prison was like over the years: the calico quilt and rocking chair in a woman’s cell from the 1960s (the museum is the site of the original Women’s Correctional Facility, built in 1935); “Old Gray Mare” (the name assigned to the flogging post used as a form of punishment until it was discontinued in the 1950s); the collection of inmate-made objects and weapons (a chess set and a knife, both made of toilet paper and water); and a bare cell but for a toilet, sink, and pallet, where “unruly or uncontrollable inmates were placed in one of these isolation cells.” The museum’s gift shop sells t-shirts that advertise “City of Prisons, Cañon City, Colorado” as well as inmate-made belt buckles and other wares.
It’s easy to lose sight of the reality of actual prisoners being on the other side of that wall, though as Stacey Cline says, “We’ve got the best security system right here … There’s an active tower right outside my window.” Getting in my car outside the museum, I could hear voices on the other side of the wall topped with barbed wire, making this the most realistic museum exhibit I had ever visited.
Obviously, prisoners aren’t always going to be content to make crafts or tend their own vegetable gardens or farm their own tilapia, or even train dogs (dogs live with inmates who keep them for a period and train them one-on-one), though these are useful state-funded programs. And there will always be troubled inmates, as we were reminded by the recent killing of Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements on March 19. The suspected killer, Evan Spencer Ebel, who died in a shoot-out with Texas police soon after, was reportedly kept in solitary confinement (called administrative segregation) for much of his sentence, according to the Huffington Post. It was also later reported that a clerical error by the Department of Corrections resulted in Ebel being released from prison four years early.
It’s surprisingly easy to get so buried in the history of Cañon City that you don’t see what’s right in front of you, that is, a working prison, and that the inmates (many of them) are here because they committed serious crimes, that this is in some ways a matter of life and death for correctional officers and other staff who go in and out of the prison each day. That’s when you realize that although you see the tourists boarding the Royal Gorge train or embarking on a zip line ride, the presence of the prisons and their separate world is very real. The longer you are here, the more you realize that there is a parallel world of thousands of the incarcerated living in a world not that far from your own.
“You sucked it up and did your job,” said a 30-year veteran DOC correctional officer at the Territorial Prison, now retired. “Back then it was known as Old Max. Our training was just a week of walking—going to all the prisons, getting a sense of counts and shakedowns. And everyone started in the graveyard tower.”
His daughter, who still lives in Cañon City, recalls her father’s ability to shake off whatever had happened that day and just be a dad.
“The correctional officers are the unsung heroes,” she said. “They’re unarmed, peed on, feces thrown at them, treated all kinds of ways. An inmate told my dad he’d kill his whole family. But (my dad) would come home, change, and go coach soccer.”
“You have to leave it there,” her father said. “And when you come home, you’re completely home. But I knew people who lived DOC 24/7.
“In those days, there was a whistle that sounded in town when there was a problem at any of the prisons, he said. “When you heard it and you were off-duty, you knew you had to report. There weren’t trained response teams like there are now.”
While the good pay and security of a pension draw many, the opportunity to make a difference and become part of a close-knit community on the job are factors, too.
“The whole premise is that we’re protecting the public,” a longtime correctional officer at one of the prisons told me. “Of course, we’re making sure the inmates are in order and behaving, but it’s also our job to change the direction the inmates are going, to help them change their morals and learn new ones. That’s what (DOC director) Clements was about. That’s why we’re no longer called guards, or sometimes, screws. Eventually, these guys are going to get out. They’re going to be your neighbor or serving you dinner at a restaurant. That’s why our job in part is to allow them to develop different ways of thinking.”
“We think of ourselves as a family,” he continued. “When the two officers were attacked last year at Arkansas Valley, we went on full lockdown like we did with Clements. And we all took it personally. It really changes your attitude. You can sometimes get complacent—even here. You talk to some of the inmates, you’re escorting them around; you sometimes talk to them. But something like this happens, you realize that they’re criminals and they can do anything.”
Like many who work for the DOC and live in town or nearby, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs, this correctional officer and his wife (who’d also worked for the DOC) came to the job in large part because of the good pay and benefits. But despite their belief that they are making a difference to inmates, sometimes they feel like they have made a deal with the devil.
“You try to leave (the job) there,” he said of the transition between life inside and outside the prison walls. “But it’s hard. I’m always aware of my surroundings, whether it’s just in Wal-Mart or in a coffee shop,” he said, showing me the place on his shoulder where he was attacked by an inmate. “In the five years I’ve worked in corrections, to say it hasn’t changed me, I would be lying. It has. And in the first year or so, she (my wife) had to put me in my place. Divorce rates among correctional officers are so high.”
“I’m glad for the two years I worked for the DOC,” his wife, who now works at a local hospital, said. “It was hell, but I have a much better understanding of what my husband does for a living. “On TV, it’s so Hollywood,” she said. “In all honesty, we have a lot of boring days. And we do a lot of talking an inmate down who’s being confrontational. We have to give them options. Colorado is big on the redirection path; you give them a choice. Unfortunately, this means they can reoffend. So we let them out and there are no programs in place for them and it’s a pendulum, so they come back.”
Her husband, who commutes to and from Canon City from Pueblo, uses the time to decompress and has made a commitment to regain his physical health, having lost nearly 70 pounds. The warden of the Territorial Prison, Rae Timme, who didn’t return calls for this story, has nonetheless inspired many of the officers to prioritize their health, as a member of CNN’s 2013 Fit Nation Triathlon team, headed by CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
For others, the stress is a more manageable part of the job, one that they enjoy because of the order and extreme attention to what is going on around them.
“It’s really not that different from any other industry,” said a longtime nurse at both the State Hospital and the DOC. “I felt a lot safer there (at the DOC) than I did just being on the outside,” she said. “And during my nurse training, I was always interested in working with the psychiatric patients. I wanted to understand what made them psychotic and how to help them.
“I’ve come and gone from the DOC a few times,” she said. “I’m drawn to it. It’s a better job with more responsibility and more to do, and you have the officers (to protect) you there. At the State Hospital there are no officers. It’s a stable, well-run business, with a good training academy, protocols, and procedures.”
Back on Main St., Cheryl Gillis, owner of the Ruby Slipper consignment shop, recalls her years as a secretary with the Department of Corrections.
“The DOC is a world unto itself,” she says of her employer of ten years. Her husband’s family and many cousins work there. “It’s really more like working at a large corporation than for the government.
Opening her shop was a longtime dream and one that she enjoys daily, especially for the range of people who come in. “Now that I’m down on Main Street, it’s like there are two different towns—Cañon City and the DOC. And for the most part, the people who work at the DOC don’t come down here; it’s like they don’t know anything else exists. One of the biggest surprises has been that I thought I knew everyone,” she said. “I had a lot of anonymity in that building. Now I’ve gotten to know our artist community, the retirees who’ve moved here, the youth who come in—I have a huge youth clientele—and the tourists and people from out of town.”
As much as the Territorial Prison at the end of Main St. is a constant reminder of Cañon City’s prison industry, there are other issues that occupy the town’s attention, not the least of which is the clean-up of a longtime Superfund site, Cotter Uranium Mill. Declared a Superfund site in 1984, it took a vocal citizen’s group, Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste, to put into motion the mill’s impending closure, though not before it polluted the Lincoln Park neighborhood’s drinking water.
Cañon City is also trying to revive the downtown and lure developers to fund historic sites and new housing developments.
“The most successful downtown businesses bring back nostalgia so baby boomers can cruise the street and feel like it’s like American Graffiti,” said Mayor Tony Greer “We’re looking to reignite the energy of downtown,” he said.
Greer, who is also a realtor, has been Mayor for three years. “Because of the weather we attract a lot of baby boomers. About two-thirds of my (home-buying) clients in 2012 were 55 and over. They can take advantage of our low cost of living and our sunny weather, and they don’t put a strain or demand on our services.”
Of course the corrections community has a huge impact on the town’s economy. About 40 percent commute out of Cañon City to Pueblo or Colorado Springs, according to Greer. “But that’s another 60 percent who shop here, who go to school here.”
“I just saw a recent report that showed the number of felony crimes is dropping at both the national and state levels,” he said. “This is great news for our country, but not so good for my town.”
According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, 2011 shows an overall decrease of 0.3% in the number of reported crimes throughout Colorado. There was a 2.4 percent decrease in violent crimes and a 0.6 percent decrease in property crimes. The fallout has been that state corrections budget cuts have closed two of Canon City’s prisons and reduced the number of staff in others.
But though some would argue that the town might be better off without the prisons, it’s hard to imagine Cañon City without them. It’s not just that they keep many families afloat financially, though their economic importance can’t be overstated. It’s also that they are the very foundation of the town—part of its tradition, history, and heritage.
“The prisons color our population,” said Cañon City native Jeri Fry, owner of the Cup and Cone and spokesperson for the Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste. “The 7 A.M. whistle (from the prison) still sounds every day. We live on a portion of the Arkansas that’s considered some of the best rafting in the world. We’re not just Cotter (Uranium Mill) and the prisons, though that’s part of who we are. There used to be a lot more ranching, mining, and farming, and the economy is slowly getting better,” she said. “I have a feeling Cañon City will wake up to the fact that we’re a tourist town. And we need to make sure we’re hospitable to our visitors.”
Jill Rothenberg is an editor and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Urban Moto magazine. She lives in southern Colorado.