McKibbin’s Scribblin’s: Rifle prison’s glass half full — for now

McKibbin’s Scribblin’s
Mike McKibbin

If you — like me most of the time — are a glass-half-full type of person, you’re glad to have heard by now that the Rifle Correctional Center will stay open for at least one, maybe two, years.

And if you’re a glass-half-empty person, you’re already worrying about what happens in the next few years.

Such is life in these times, I’m afraid. Once you get past one big worry, there are always other hurdles to overcome.

Last Thursday, the state Joint Budget Committee was told that no prisons will be recommended for closure this year due to an 18 percent decline in the state inmate population since 2008. In fact, at least for now, that trend seems to have stabilized around 3,200 vacant prison beds in recent months.

If that trend holds, state Budget Director Henry Sobanet told lawmakers on the committee, the system may have weathered the worst and should survive through the rest of this year.

However, a few things were mentioned (I listened to the presentation of the draft state prison utilization study on the Internet. Isn’t technology wonderful?) that caught my ear. For one, minimum security prisons, like Rifle, have the highest vacant bed rate at 18 percent. The second highest classification was way down at 6.5 percent.

I’m not sure if that means prisons such as Rifle would be first for further reductions or closure if the inmate population numbers resumed their drop. But it kind of makes sense if you look at it from a purely financial point of view, right? Anyone who wants to make the best use of their money would look at getting rid of their most expensive items if they can’t afford them.

Another attention getter was that Rifle was included in a tier of prisons that would be among the first to close if the state decides it needs to go that direction after this year. Those closures could be either temporary or permanent, depending on which long-term inmate population trend the state follows.

And Rifle is the state prison with the highest transportation costs, since it’s the furthest from a population center. Supplies and inmate transfers require more time and cost more than other prisons.

As all politicians are wont to do, state Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, who represents the Rifle area, told the committee of the value the prison brings to the Rifle community. Specifically, he pointed out the quick action by the prison’s inmate firefighting crews to respond to the recent wildfire near Rifle Gap Reservoir and the prison. Valid point, too.

And in a worst case scenario, developed by the Colorado Legislative Council in 2009, the Rifle prison could close next year, due to a projected drop of 1,740 inmates in the state system and 2,122 vacant or surplus beds. The consultants for the latest study noted the likelihood of that actually happening was not high, but couldn’t discount it either.

The final prison utilization study is due in a couple of days, but it’s not likely to change too much, according to the consultants. Which kind of leaves the folks who work at the Rifle prison — along with six other prisons most likely to be closed — and the communities where they’re located in limbo.

Looking at the bigger picture, what’s led to the inmate population decline — changes in prison sentences by lawmakers, more inmates being paroled and a falling crime rate — could be seen as positive. At least by most people. Some will always want to lock everyone up and throw away the key for any crime. Not a very effective way, cost-wise or whatever, to deal with it.

So while fewer inmates should mean the state won’t have to spend as much money, there’s the trade-off of possibly hurting local communities, like Rifle, if prisons are closed.

Like I said, you get past one worry and something else lies ahead.

Mike McKibbin is the editor of The Citizen Telegram.

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