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Living in a Prison Town
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 01/14/2019

Prison wall a

As I was driving through town, listening to the radio, I heard someone describe the town where I live as having prisons and a bridge. The radio host went on to explain to the listeners that the “bridge” was the highest suspension bridge in the world and it brings in thousands of tourists every year. Then, the radio host moved on – no mention of the prisons. I reflected upon this interaction as I continued to run errands.

I live in a small town in Colorado that is by all accounts “prison central” for the state. This small town is surrounded by both state and federal prisons and many, if not most, of the people in the town are working at one of these institutions, living with someone who is working at one of these institutions, or making a living by providing goods to the prison employees and their families. Canon City, Colorado is not the only such town. In fact, there are many locations in the United States that have become the hub of the prison industry. This type of town is more than just a town with a prison. This type of town’s history, economy and culture are woven into the history, economy, and culture of the prison.

As I thought about the impact of the corrections system upon the community, I tried to look at it from different points of view. I have lived here for over 35 years and worked in the state system for most of that time, but now I am retired. As such, I am distanced from the prisons a little bit, but they still employ many of my friends. So, I made a point of talking to other retirees, including those who did not retire from the prisons. I asked them about the prisons and what they thought about them. The answers I got didn’t surprise me.

One couple rarely gave the institutions any thought. They moved here after retirement and accepted the fact that the town had prisons. They didn’t see the impact past the buildings standing at the edge of town. Another couple I asked moved here to retire and the prisons were a selling point. They were retired law enforcement officers and they wanted to live in an area where their values lined up with others. They stated that being surrounded by corrections staff made them feel comfortable and safe.

Of course, many of the retirees I talked to were, like me, retired corrections people. These people had built their retirement, their families, and their homes around a community that had provided a stable career, good benefits, and a great retirement plan. They saw the prisons and the people who work there as assets and friends.

I continued my quest for information and I started talking to business owners. Most of these individuals have built their business plan around the revenue from the prisons and their employees. Convenience stores, grocery stores, and gas stations were among the business owners who profited and expressed appreciation for the prisons. However, some other business owners were not as eager to share the positive. A few restaurant and bar owners talked about the disruption that some of the prison employees caused in their establishments on a relatively regular basis. These business owners talked of the apparent problems that the prison employees had and that alcohol made it worse. One bar owner agreed that the prison employees were a rough crowd but, in the end, he was profiting off their alcohol consumption so it was worth the problems they created. This particular bar owner had worked in areas with large factories and he compared the issues with prison employees with the types of issues he saw in the factory towns. This prison was just another “factory” to him.

I was bothered by this image of corrections, after all these were my people. I was driven in my quest for information to find other points of view so I started talking to the people who ran the non-profit organizations in town. I was not surprised to hear that many of these people saw prison employees as a great resource. They talked about the numbers of prison officers who were coaches, who were willing to help with construction projects or clean up projects, and those who were willing to help at all hours of the day and night. These prison employees were the backbone of many of their programs, however, more than one person told me that they tried to get these prison employees to take on formal roles within the organizations, like serve on boards or as officers, but they were not usually successful. Apparently, the prison employees were willing to work behind the scenes but they didn’t want any part of another bureaucracy of any type. This didn’t surprise me. Of course, there are exceptions. Canon City has had prison employees who have served on the school board, the city council, and even had a mayor who was prison retiree. I reflected on the events that I had attended in town over the past 35 years and I could not remember a single event where I didn’t see a prison employee working behind the scenes.

The next people I talked to were the people working in the government offices for the city and county. I asked them about their relationships with corrections and the employees. Many of the members of city council, county commissioners, and local law enforcement immediately started talking about the resources that the corrections system had at their immediate disposal. These resources created the backbone of the emergency response capability for the area. I was reminded of a horrible bus accident that had occurred in the 1990s. The prison was called upon for blankets, pillows, and cots. Then the bus was actually stored on prison grounds, behind a secure barrier, until the NTSB officials could arrive. The prison even set up and hosted the press conference for the incident. All of these services were easily accommodated with just a phone call. I remembered that our housekeeping crews were even sent in to clean up the church where the survivors were housed after the crash. The government officials I talked to were huge supporters of having corrections in their community.

As I headed home, I realized there was one more point of view I needed. Canon City is a tourist destination in Colorado so I went in search of the tourists. I talked to several different people over the course of a few days who were in town to see the bridge. I asked them about their visit to my town, my prison town. Many people talked about the bridge, the ropes course, the zip lines and a few even talked about their visit to the prison museum. Most of the people I talked to were interested in the old prison at the edge of town (the territorial prison opened in 1871 and is still operating today). They related stories of trying to get pulled over in time to get a selfie with this huge old prison in the background of their photos. While the prisons were certainly not the reason they came to Canon City, they were also not a particular deterrent. They just were.

This struck me as the most surprising piece of information that I received from my quest to talk to people about my prison town. The prisons just “were.” To these people passing through, the prisons were not a sign of a town that was blessed with a great industry that attracted good people. To these people the prisons were not even a sign of the evil prison industrial complex that was torturing people or at the very least unjustly holding large numbers of people. To these people most of the prisons were not even a point of discussion, except to get a selfie. I was reminded by these conversations about the “hidden” world in which we live and work. I was reminded that many people never think about prisons at all and if they do, they don’t really think about the people who live near them or work within them. They just “are.”

As I contemplated the information I had gathered, I tried to piece together the meaning of it all. What is the impact of the prisons upon the community? What was the big take-away? Are we an asset, just another factory, or an unseen part of the picture? I guess it really depends upon the individual’s point of reference, but I know that my little prison town is a great place to live, work, raise a family and retire.

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".


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