From the outside, Bent County Correctional Facility in Las Animas looks as silent and colorless as the flat plain on which it sits, bleached pale brown.
A drive down 6th Street takes travelers through Las Animas’ empty center, out of town and past empty fields, until the prison appears. But on an early April morning, the rural setting was deceptive — inside the prison’s neat walls more than 1,420 men had eaten their breakfast and shuffled off to computer classes, the barber shop, a catholic mass, and other daily activities.
Built in 1993, Bent County became Colorado’s first privately run prison in 1996 when the Corrections Corporation of America bought it.
It’s a business with 285 employees, but it is also a small city that relies on Bent County for just about everything except toilet paper and propane. The prison spends about $900,000 for local products and produce — for instance, the dairy products come from nearby Gohlson’s Dairy.
While a county jail can feel like a kennel, with a stench and no-nonsense discipline, Bent County feels like the home it has become, for better or for worse, for its medium security inmates. It is at home in the county, too, with inmates and staff filling the roles of painters, decorators and school bus cleaners.
Forty-five percent of the prison’s employees live in Bent County, the rest come from nearby Otero and Prowers Counties. Warden Brigham Sloan hired the facility’s computer science teacher, Tim Berry, after the two met on the bleachers during their sons’ football game.
“This is where we all live. We’re not just employees of a company town,” Sloan said. “This is our hometown.”
The prison is a well-oiled machine with the credentials to prove it — it recently was awarded a score of 100 percent, its third since 2003, from the American Correctional Association (ACA).
Since the 1870s, the ACA has run inspections, or audits, of U.S. prisons every three years. In September, auditors came to Bent to scrutinize programs, policies and inmates. Sloan said it’s the top of the mountain when it comes to inspections, but only one of several — fire safety, food programs, health — inspections the prison goes through regularly.
The ACA has 500 standards that must be met by facilities, 61 of which are mandatory. A score of less than 100 percent for mandatory standards — such as sanitation or regular inmate roll calls — is not acceptable. Besides rating the efficiency of Bent’s seven-times daily roll calls, inspectors evaluate quality of life programs that give inmates a daily income of 60 cents or put them through GED classes.
In the morning, the prison halls were reminiscent of a high school after the morning bell has rung. Berry’s computer science students typed dedicatedly on their computers, learning programing and software codes. An inmate in a green jumpsuit cleaned electric clippers in the barbershop; some in the faith-based cell house, where inmates can live for six months, listened to a televised mass in the common area.
The facility is a one-stop shop for the basics of existence — GED teachers, addiction counselors, sports coaches, dentists and librarians. But it’s still prison — inmates in the kitchen prepare menus dictated by the Colorado Department of Corrections, and serve food to their anonymous comrades from behind a metal panel. The menus are issued in six-week rotations, and preparation involves no creativity.
“Don’t put any mama’s love into the meal,” the Warden cautioned. “It’s like McDonald’s. Same every time.”
The prison’s library, which has a digitized by-appointment-only legal section, has a small selection that, outside of inter-library loans, carries mainly pulp fiction recycled from other libraries. The legal section is popular among inmates, Sloan said, and the library is a mandatory ACA standard.
Although groups of inmates make it through the prison’s GED, vocational and addiction classes, the quirky personality of Bent begins to show outside of cell houses. Specifically, outside the main building next to the gym, where a Native American sweat lodge sits corralled in a dirt plot. There was even a powwow a couple of years ago.
During ceremonies, self-declared practitioners pass a pipe stuffed with kinnikinnick, a mixture of tobacco and herbs. The prison chaplain took a couple puffs when he helped Red Sleeves, a medicine man from La Junta bless the lodge. Inmates can declare a religion when they enter the prison.
Needless to say, the Native American practice is a popular one, but prisoner’s must wait a year to change a declared faith, said Sloane. The faith-change policy mostly helps the prison accommodate those with dietary constraints, such as some Jewish inmates who had to request a special Passover meal 120 days in advance.
It’s in the prison gym where captivity and vitality mix the best. Under the watchful eye of Dave Beebe, the recreational supervisor since 2004, groups of inmates sweat through games of one-on-one, or join leagues for volleyball, handball, or (a big favorite) ultimate Frisbee.
There are creative outlets in prison, even if the kitchen is not one of them.
A canvas mural painted by inmates with a collage of world cities — New York, Paris, London — hangs drying on one wall of the gym. Traditionally, some of the more artistic inmates paint such décor for Bent County high school proms, Beebe said. This one is destined for the McClave High School prom this spring.
Inside a locked room next to the basketballs courts Andrew Salas — a “lifer,” Beebe says — sits among electric guitars, a piano and a locked metal cage hung with tambourines. The prison’s music program, which offers music theory classes and allows inmates to play in approved bands, was a gamble but has become wildly popular, bringing inmates like Salas to the forefront.
“I wasn’t sure,” the Warden said about the musical experiment. “But Dave showed a positive influence.”
Salas, who has been in prison since 1989 according to prison logs, has become the prison’s self-taught electric guitar virtuoso, and now teaches other inmates. With arms sheathed in tattoos, Salas strummed his guitar, and softly sang in the company of two other men.
They’ll burn their tunes onto a disc for anybody who asks — with the Warden’s permission— eager to share their collaborations for the prison-wide Memorial Day concert in May.
—Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261Twitter @ryanmhandy