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Shuttered Colorado Women’s Prison Finds New Life

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(credit: AP)

(credit: AP)

DENVER (AP) – A southern Colorado town worried about the closing of a state prison there next year could look to a nearby facility for hope.

The former women’s prison in Canon City stopped housing inmates in 2009 and has been reinvented as a federally funded training ground for criminal justice and penal systems in foreign countries.

In March, Fort Lyon Correctional Facility near Las Animas is scheduled to close. State officials say they’re scrambling to find a new use for the site.

The key will be identifying a worthwhile purpose like the one that now occupies the former women’s prison, said Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West.

The Canon City facility teaches foreign criminal justice officials everything from interdiction strategies for slowing trafficking of arms, drugs and humans, to engaging inmates in a trade that will be marketable when they are released, The Pueblo Chieftain reported.

PHOTO GALLERY: Museum Of Colorado Prisons

For about two years, trainers employed by the Colorado Department of Corrections whose salaries are funded by federal grants have taught the foreign officials.

“Countries can’t get stable if their criminal justice system is not stable,” department spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said. “If they are inhumane or unstable, the society can’t stabilize.”

Mexico, Afghanistan, Morocco, Brazil and Honduras are some of the countries that have sent criminal justice officials to Canon City to better understand the American system and glean strategies that could help them at home.

Sanguinetti said training at the former Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility doesn’t just benefit the nations that accept it.

“Take the cartels in Mexico. This training is helping us keep drugs on the other side of the border and helping Mexico keep its streets safe,” she said. “And stability in Afghanistan is a key to getting American troops home. Their criminal justice system is far less developed than ours. They fit what they learn here into their system to become stable and self-sufficient so we can pull out.”

The configuration of the women’s prison suited its new purpose. It has dormitory-style boarding and food-preparation services to accommodate the foreign visitors.

Sanguinetti said meals are prepared by inmates who participate in Colorado Correctional Industries, an enterprise within the state prison system that provides vocational training to occupy prisoners’ time productively while teaching them skills that will help them find employment when they are released.

The CCI model has been integrated into the training at the former women’s prison.

“The U.S. State Department has realized that in foreign countries if you put these offenders into the same setting, it’s a breeding ground for terrorism and plots,” said Swerdfeger, who chairs the board of CCI. “In this setting, they see the benefits of education and training. If prisoners have the mindset that there is something to look forward to when they get out, maybe they won’t get out and want to blow up the world again.”

Sanguinetti said CCI’s goat dairy was particularly intriguing to justice officials from one of the nations that received training. They left with the intention of starting a similar enterprise in their homeland.

“Goats are a staple of the diet and the economy in this particular country,” Sanguinetti said. “They’ll give the offenders an actual job like they’ve never had before. Instead of raising opium, they’ll be raising goats. That’s beneficial for their society, helps the economy and gives offenders something to do.”

The new mission at the former women’s prison hasn’t only provided jobs for inmates. The Department of Corrections transferred each of the prison employees displaced by the closure of Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility to another job in the Canon City area. The site’s new mission has created six jobs for a net gain in employment.

Swerdfeger hopes that when Fort Lyon finds a new identity after the prison there closes in March that the 200 jobs leaving southeastern Colorado will be replaced as well.

“If everyone keeps working as hard as they have been, we’ll find something that could adapt to Fort Lyon,” Swerdfeger said. “I think it’s just a matter of finding the right fit.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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