That was George Turner's first response when I asked him about the 14 prison facilities located in Canon City and Fremont County (pop. 47,985), Colorado. George is the Chair of the Canon City Planning Commission, a past Mayor of the City, and ex-head of the Chamber of Commerce.
In a breakfast meeting I had with George; William Jackson (Canon City's current Mayor); Jon Stone (a member of the City Council); and Mary Ann Brenner (the city's long-time Planning Director) this view was heartily endorsed.
No one wants there to be a need for prisons, but if there's going to be a new one -- and the odds are pretty high that's going to continue to be the case -- Canon City wants to be the host.
George told me how about ten years ago the federal Bureau of Prisons had been looking to house a minimum security facility in the Canon City area. When negotiations with an order of Benedictine monks to buy Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City and convert it to a prison fell through, local citizens decided to contribute money to buy another piece of land and offer it to the Bureau of Prisons. The Bureau was so impressed by Canon City residents' attitude that it ended up building a full complex of prisons in the County -- including a new supermax, high security unit.
[photo: left, one of the prisons in the federal complex; below right, the maximum security Colorado State Prison, one of several state prison facilities in the county]
My breakfast companions ticked off some of the "celebrities" who have been housed in area prisons: ex-General Manuel Noriega; Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber); Timothy McVeigh ... to name just a few.
But big-name prisoners are no big deal. What matters, I was told -- as prison buses whizzed by outside the Canon Coffee Cafe's windows -- was the big economic benefits that prisons bring. With thousands of inmates come thousands of prison staff (the Colorado Dept. of Corrections employs 1,756 in the County; the Federal Corrections Complexes employ 990 -- the prisons are by far and away the largest employers in Fremont County).
Prison staff live and shop in the Canon City area, boosting the economy. There's minimal security risk to area residents, and no one could recall any recent breakouts. Besides, with all the prison staff & others, Canon City's a heavily armed community, and one which any escaping prisoner would likely want to get as far away from as quickly as possible.
George was a bit puzzled when I explained the difficulty we had in Vermont in locating a new state prison. To him, housing prisoners just makes common sense. They've been an integral part of Canon City, ever since Territorial Prison, as it's called, opened way back in 1868 -- part of the very reason for Canon City's existence. Territorial's located right next to one end of Main Street.
Canon City has the infrastructure and water the prison facilities need. The local hospital, St. Thomas More, has even added a new section with extra security to handle prisoners' medical needs.
Mary Ann told me that while the federal prisons don't provide much in the way of local job opportunities (federal prison staff generally gets rotated in from eleswhere), the overall impact of all the prisons -- state and federal -- is very positive. It's one reason there are few vacant storefronts downtown.
To the folks in Canon City, housing prisoners just doesn't have much of a downside.
p.s., while I've focused on prisons, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Canon City has an active downtown main street, nice residential neighborhoods, and a magnificent setting -- with the city jutting up against the Front Range. Nearby is the Royal Gorge Bridge and recreational area, a big attraction for tourists. A couple of photos: downtown storefront; the library; then a view of Route 50 from Canon City's Skyline Drive.