Residents urge state not to close prison

RIFLE — Several hundred people turned out Tuesday night to urge state prison officials to reconsider a plan to close the Rifle Correctional Center.

“For a community that has lived in a boom and bust cycle for many, many years, this is a big hit for us,” Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert told Department of Corrections representatives who appeared at a public meeting at Colorado Mountain College’s West Garfield Campus to discuss the proposal with the community.

The closure would mean the loss of 57 local jobs. The state plans to offer prison workers jobs at other facilities.

Department executive director Ari Zavaras said the plan is driven by simple economic realities at a time when the state is facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion.

“These are tough, tough economic times,” Zavaras said.

He said the department already cut some 500 staff during the economic downturn earlier this decade. This time around, he said, it had no choice but to target facilities, and settled on the Rifle site and the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility in Canon City.

The department picked the 192-bed, Rifle facility because of its small size. Corrections officials say the state will benefit from economies of scale by moving Rifle’s inmates to larger minimum-security prisons, at a savings of $600,000 a year.

Sometimes speaking emotionally, several people voiced concerns about the economic impact to the Rifle area when natural gas development is slowing down, and worried about the difficulty of prison workers relocating when selling homes and obtaining mortgages has become more difficult.

“Is it really that worthwhile, for changing that many lives, to give this facility up?” asked Mark Opstein, a Rifle pastor.

State Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, participated via webcast in Tuesday night’s meeting and promised to oppose the Department of Corrections’ Rifle plan through his role as a member of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee.

“Though they call this a decision, I call it a proposal,” White said before being drowned out by applause.

Corrections officials came up with their plan after Gov. Bill Ritter asked agencies to come up with budget-tightening measures. However, the proposals are subject to legislative review.
Zavaras said state officials would take into consideration the fact that so many people showed up Tuesday.

“You all didn’t hurt yourself tonight with your turnout,” he said.


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