Prison meeting shows support to keep Rifle facility open
Citizen Telegram Editor
Colorado prisons have seen a sharp drop in the number of inmates over the last several years, but none more than minimum security prisons, such as the Rifle Correctional Center.
An outpouring of support by local officials and others for the local prison occurred at a June 13 meeting at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle, where state officials explained the situation and listened to feedback.
During the state’s 2011-12 fiscal year, prison population dropped by an average of 131 inmates a month, according to a handout from the meeting. That rate increased to 140 inmates a month in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
While no recommendations on partial or full prison closures have been made, a study is due to be presented to the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee today, June 20, said state budget director Henry Sobanet.
Colorado’s total inmate population peaked at 23, 186 in 2009, and had declined to 20,087 as of April 2012, according to numbers Sobanet presented to a crowd of around 75 people.
He cited a number of factors for the declining inmate numbers:
• A falling crime rate that means fewer offenders are sentenced to prison;
• More prisoners are being paroled earlier; and
• State lawmakers have reduced prison sentences in recent years.
“I don’t think anyone can predict with any certainty the accuracy of our inmate populations,” Sobanet said. “If it tapers off, there’s a chance we could have made enough reductions already. But if it continues to go down, we’ll have more surplus beds.”
The department has reduced the number of beds by 2,500 across the state prison system in the last three years, according to the handout.
Sobanet said while it’s likely the highest numbers of surplus beds will be in minimum security facilities such as Rifle, he pointed out there are such facilities in the urban areas of the state that could see some changes as well.
The Rifle facility has a more than $3.5 million budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year and employs 48 full-time equivalent staff members, Sobanet said in an email to The Citizen Telegram. The facility’s average annual cost per inmate was $24,813 in the 2011-12 fiscal year, the second highest among the four minimum security prisons in the state.
Sobanet said state officials are very aware that a 2009 plan to close the Rifle prison is a “sore point” with local residents and officials. Shortly after former Gov. Bill Ritter proposed the closure due to state budget shortfalls, an outcry from Rifle officials and residents caused Ritter to withdraw the plan.
Rifle Mayor Jay Miller said the community service inmates provide the city, the Rifle Senior Housing Authority and others is valued at $250,000 to $300,000 a year.
“There are four inmates who prepare meals at the Rifle Senior Center,” Miller noted. “They’re learning and practicing directly transferable skills they can use when they’re released.”
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario and Colorado River Fire Rescue Chief Mike Morgan noted the Rifle prison’s Juniper Valley inmate firefighting units provide important protection to area residents and property.
Among others addressing the issue were state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Cowdrey, and state Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, who represent the Rifle area in the Legislature.
“I know this issue is far from settled, even after we get your report,” Rankin said. “It will take a lot of community activism and a real grassroots effort” for any community to avoid closures.
Local Affairs Director Reeves Brown said state officials want as much local input and reaction to the prison utilization study as possible.
“We want to know what’s good and what’s bad, what’s missing,” he added. “If there is a closure or reduction recommendation, I can assure you we’ll be back to explain things.”
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Rifle and New Castle are seeing decent increases in tax revenue, according to financial administrators.