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It’s a little strained, but it’s a relationship – Sterling Journal-Advocate

When it became clear, back in the late 1990s, that Sterling would become the home of Colorado’s newest and largest prison, there was an immediate division in the community about whether it was good news or bad news.

Twenty-five years later, the division is still there and the jury (pardon the pun) may never arrive at a verdict.

Dedicated on June 17, 1999, Sterling Correctional Facility opened with 300 State of Colorado employees. That number has grown to 765, with a median salary of $56,000 per year, according to the website ZipRecruiter. That’s $1,000 a year higher than the national median for prison employees. Simple arithmetic puts salaries at the prison alone at $43 million annually, and that was before a July 1 wage hike that put starting salaries at $56,000 for corrections officers.

The prison also has offered opportunities for hundreds of Sterling-area residents they otherwise would not have had. Northeastern Junior College contracted early on to provide instructors for college-credit classes at the prison, a task that DOC has gradually taken in-house.

But the relationship between Sterling and the prison has always been a strained one. Don Ament, who was in the Colorado Senate when funding for the prison was secured, said he believed then and continues to believe that SCF has been a plus for Sterling.

“Oh, heck yes, not only good for the DOC, with a modern, up-to-date facility, but good for Sterling with, what, 800 jobs?” he said.

And yet, from the beginning there have been naysayers. Ament remembers being hounded by a group opposed to the prison, and said relations there haven’t improved much.

“There are people (in Sterling) who still hate me,” he said with a laugh.

Initial fears centered around escaped prisoners bringing a crime wave to Sterling. Prison officials repeatedly responded that the primary purpose of the prison was to keep people locked up, a goal that has been pretty well accomplished; Only one inmate has ever escaped in the 25 years of the prison’s history, and he was a minimum-security offender who got no further than Yuma before being recaptured.

Not all of the skeptics were Sterlingites, however. There were even those in the Department of Corrections who opposed putting such a large facility 150 miles from the DOC’s “heartland” in the Canon City area. One of the most vocal critics was Nolin Renfrow, the man who was supposed to oversee construction and opening of the Sterling prison. In 1997 Renfrow sat down with the editor of the Journal-Advocate and admitted he was not all that happy with putting a prison here. He pointed out that, in the Canon City area where six of the state’s prisons are located, including the old territorial prison and Colorado State Penitentiary, administering a complex of prisons is more efficient and less costly.

“Where we have a bunch of facilities grouped together, if you need a tractor for something, you can use that tractor for all six facilities,” he was quoted as saying. “But where we have these remote sites, they have to be self-sufficient, so you duplicate all of those costs.”

Where there is a concentration of prisons, Renfrow said, there also is a concentration of prison personnel. If an incident occurs in one of the facilities, backup can be on-site almost immediately. In Sterling, however, reinforcements are two hours away.

Additionally, Renfrow said, transfers of inmates – necessary for safety and security reasons – and of staff is faster and easier.

“Say a (correctional officer) gets promoted to sergeant but there aren’t any sergeant positions at his facility,” he said. “We can easily transfer that person to an opening at another facility that’s nearby. The family doesn’t have to move, it costs us almost nothing to make the move.”

But if the only openings are at Sterling or Limon or Arkansas Valley, Renfrow said, then the employee has to make a hard choice – uproot the family, sell the house, find a new home, leave friends and sometimes family behind; or decline the promotion.

Renfrow was transferred back to Canon City shortly after his remarks were published, but he went on to become Director of Prisons for the state. He retired in 2006 after what can only be described as a “checkered” career with DOC. He died unexpectedly in 2017.

Robert Furlong was the first de facto warden at DOC, transferring in from the Limon prison. He helmed SCF until his retirement in 2003. Since then, Gary Golder, Kevin Milyard, James Falk, John Chapdelaine and Mathew Hanson have held the post, now occupied by Jeff Long.

Staffing issues have always plagued Colorado’s rural prisons. It’s one thing to offer an under-employed community hundreds of new, high-paying and relatively secure job opportunities, but a new prison also requires a cadre of experienced leaders, and those people have to come from somewhere else. Of the 300 people who staffed the newly-opened prison in 1999, 40 were transfers from other prisons. And DOC has to be pretty picky about the people it hires. There are background checks, personality tests and physical fitness requirements to meet.

Prison work is stressful; one NJC instructor said he was told by an inmate, “I like you, but if you’re standing between me and an open gate, I’m going right through you.” It is an environment that requires 800 people to control more than 2,000 men who want to be anywhere but where they are. It is strictly regimented, dangerous, and fraught with tensions between keepers and the kept, and among the inmates themselves. Multiple studies on burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder put the PTSD rate among prison corrections officers at more than 50 percent; higher even that military veterans.

Alonda Gonzalez-Garcia, spokesperson for the DOC, conceded that staffing prisons in remote locations is “challenging.”

“As is common in rural areas, recruiting and retaining talent can be challenging,” Gonzalez-Garcia said.” We fully recognize the unique hurdles presented by SCF’s remote location and continue to commit to addressing these challenges effectively.”

DOC isn’t getting much help from the General Assembly, however. A public-private partnership to develop staff housing on state property near the prison was rejected by the legislature, citing a lack of funding.

“We continue to look at other ways to help our staff in our rural communities, especially at Sterling,” Gonzalez-Garcia said.

Nonetheless, Sterling Correctional Facility has operated for a quarter of a century with fears of prison breaks and massive crime unrealized. There has been an impact on the community, however, and most of it has been in the courts and local law enforcement.

Logan County Sheriff Brett Powell said his department has to compete with the prison for staffing. The state pays more and the benefits are better, Powell said, so it makes it difficult to recruit and keep detention officers.

The prison also has added a new dimension to management of the Logan County jail. Prison inmates who commit new crimes are taken to district court in the Logan County Justice Center and have to be processed through the county jail. In addition, inmates who complete their time in the state prison but are still facing charges from crimes they committed there are taken to the Logan County jail

“These inmates now become our management problem and they are not from here,” Powell said. “This takes a toll on our staff.”

When sex offenders are released from Sterling Correctional and parole to elsewhere in Colorado but fail to register, warrants for their arrests are issued out of Logan County.

“We are responsible for having to transport them back here from who-knows-where at the expense of our tax payers,” Powell said. “These inmates have no ties to Logan County other than the crime of failing to register as a sex offender.”

Powell believes those arrest warrants should be issued by the courts where they fail to register.

Then there is the issue of process serving, Prison inmates are subject to having legal documents served on them just like the rest of us, but with security protocols involved at Sterling Correctional Facility, it can be something of a challenge to serve those papers.

Still, Powell said he and his staff have a relatively good working relationship with prison officials.

“We have done our best to work with DOC over the years and will continue to do so in the future,” he said.

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