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Cañon City’s Territorial Prison, a part of its history
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By Ernest Gurulé

For anyone who has driven Colorado Highway 50 and passed through Cañon City, it is impossible to miss the very identifiable Territorial Prison. For better or worse, the facility practically defines the town’s history. Why wouldn’t it? It’s been open for business housing the state’s most notorious inmates since 1871. And while it’s the oldest prison in Colorado, it certainly is not the only prison in the state. In fact, it’s not even the only prison in Cañon City.

“We have seven facilities in Cañon City,” said Colorado Department of Corrections Public Information Officer, Mark Fairbairn. Beside the seven in the town, there are also several private and federal prisons scattered throughout the county, including what has been referred to as ‘the toughest prison in the country,’ Supermax.

Supermax houses only those inmates who have been declared the most dangerous and in need of maximum supervision. Its population includes terrorists, white supremacist gang leaders, mafia snitches and hitmen and others the government say requires near 24-hour lockdown.

There was a time in the seventies when the Territorial facility was Colorado’s only prison. But two things happened. States across the country found themselves the target of inmates filed lawsuits charging that overcrowding created dangerous environments. The period was also the beginning of the ‘tough on crime’ era which ushered in maximum minimum sentencing. Prison populations, including Colorado’s, mushroomed and prison construction suddenly became economic development for scores of smaller communities.

Colorado’s Department of Corrections has slightly more than 14,000 inmates today. Its Sterling facility houses more than 2,400 prisoners, making it the largest of the state’s 22 prison sites.

In Cañon City, Territorial Prison houses 913 inmates, the largest number of the seven facilities in the town. It, said Fairbairn, is a Level 3 facility, placing it right in the mid-range of security levels. Level 1 is the least secure. Level 5 inmates, said Fairbairn, “show institutional behavior that is dangerous.” Those are inmates who have assaulted staff or have gang affiliations.

While there are inmates who identify as gang members, said Fairbairn, “they have to live with one another.” Colorado, unlike other states, does not separate based on gang affiliation. “We expect them to act appropriately.”

Also, as in other states, Colorado’s prison population is aging. And, with age, come problems that include Alzheimer’s and dementia. “We have a unit at Territorial that has 24-hour medical care.” To care for these inmates, “we have offenders who are trained to help with day-to-day tasks,” including everything from helping bathe or push these inmates in their wheel chairs. Inmates who provide care are required to complete training, “the same as you’d get working in a nursing home,” he said.

Inmates who perform these jobs also earn a premium for their work. They can earn at the highest inmate pay scale, $2.49 cents a day. The lowest pay rate in the state system is $.33 a day. Those earning at that rate are usually food service workers. Money can go directly into an inmate’s account or to pay back victims of their crime or go toward other court-ordered costs.

Because “one of these days these guys are going to get out,” Fairbairn said the DOC also provides job training. Inmates can work in the furniture shop or learn welding and working with metal. Inmates, he said, “made all the cells for Centennial.” There is also a program for inmates who qualify to train wild horses.

But inmate populations are showing a steady increase. Territorial, for example, is not far from reaching capacity. And, though there is no date certain, Centennial South, a facility built in 2010 to confine inmates in nearly 24-hour lockdown, but has sat empty since 2012, may be reopening to accept the state’s overflow. The state has abandoned long-term solitary confinement as punishment. The matter will be taken up in the next legislative session.

Centennial, also in Cañon City, is where the state places those inmates with mental health needs.





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