Life In Colorado’s Prison Valley, Where Inmates Are 38% Of Population


In the Colorado 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, The Los Angeles Times calls it “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 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 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. Inmates make up 38 percent of the two cities’ populations. Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, an imposing stone fortress opened in 1871, houses 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. 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, owner of a Cañon City western shop, “don’t stick around for long.”

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