Prison closings lead to loss of jobs

An inmate peeps through the bars of his cell.

by Zachary Barr

Nancy Wehr and her husband moved to Walsenburg, Col. for the rural lifestyle. They wanted to have horses. The trouble is, now Nancy's living alone. So after a long nursing shift, there's still work to do. "Now I have to come at home at midnight and still bring all the horses their grain and last feed of the day," she says.

Nancy's husband, Jeff, would normally do these chores, but that was before he and nearly 200 others lost their jobs at the nearby private prison. To continue his career, Jeff decided to take a job at another for-profit prison in Oklahoma. "He left March 26, the day after his birthday," Nancy says.

The Huerfano County Correctional Center here in Walsenburg shut down because it lost the contract to house Arizona inmates. Arizona's recalled those 700 inmates into its state system to save money. And that decision left Bonnie Rose without a job as a correctional officer. "I thought that I would retire completely from there," she says. " I never thought at the age of 62 I'd be wandering around looking for another job."

The rub is, prisons aren't quite as full they once were. The state prison population has dropped for the first time in nearly 40 years

Adam Gelb with the Pew Center on the States says the drop is partly due to the fact that states need to cut their budgets. But he says it's also because many lawmakers and politicians now feel its OK to send fewer people to prison. "More and more policymakers are realizing there are research-based strategies that can produce public safety at far less cost than a $25,000 a year taxpayer-funded prison cell," he says.

But tell that to the folks in Walsenburg. On Main Street, cars zoom by numerous empty storefronts, where Nance Lavay owns a gift shop. She says business is way down since the prison closed and she doesn't see it turning around easily. "It would have to take something very major to replace the prison," she says, "but we don't have any idea of what that would be at the present time."

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