May 28, 2009 / 5:13 PM / 9 years ago

Jail town unruffled by Gitmo prison transfer

FLORENCE, Colo. (Reuters) - Over the hill from the first hole at Sumo Golf Village is the Federal Correctional Complex. Golf pro Randy Burross could hit the prison with a single drive.

A general view of the Florence Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado, May 26, 2009. Dubbed the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," the jail could eventually become the home of some of the detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention center that President Barack Obama wants closed by January. Photo taken on May 26, 2009 REUTERS/Steven Saint

He’s more concerned about the rain on this day than the prospect of having Guantanamo Bay detainees held over the fairway in the salmon and turquoise buildings set in rolling prairie.

“This is the safest place in the state,” Burross said. “And if anyone did escape, they wouldn’t hang around here.”

Dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” the jail could eventually become the home of some of the detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention center that President Barack Obama wants closed by January.

Obama, who has run into a storm of questions on what he plans to do with the 240 foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo, said last week he would seek to transfer an undisclosed number to “highly secure” U.S. prisons, such as the federal Administrative Maximum Security jail outside Florence.

Dubbed a “supermax” jail, it is the only federal prison of its kind in the country. It houses a Who’s Who of people convicted on terrorism charges, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted for his role in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The 490-bed facility currently has only one opening.

The supermax prison is part of a correctional complex that sits about 2 miles south of the Colorado town of Florence. A sparse, chest-high barbed-wire fence is the only thing separating the four prisons that make up the complex — each of varying levels of security — from the two-lane Highway 67.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called on Obama to develop a plan to deal with detainees from Guantanamo, which opened at a U.S. naval base in Cuba in 2002 to house suspects in the war on terrorism declared by Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.

TARGET FOR REPRISALS?

Objections to detainees being brought to the United States have included concern about their rights once in the country — rather than at Guantanamo — and worries that the transfer could make towns like Florence targets for reprisals.

But the lack of concern of a resident like Burross is echoed all around this quaint town of 3,800 people, which made a push to host the jail when the government dreamed up the concept of concentrating the U.S. prison system’s most violent, disruptive and escape-prone prisoners in ‘supermax’ facilities in the mid-1990s.

The town even sees the prisons as a way through the country’s current economic gloom.

“The prisons are a recession-proof, non-polluting industry for us,” said Florence City Manager Tom Piltingsrud. “There’s not a lot of concern about sending detainees here because they’ve already sent us the worst of the worst.”

Profound isolation lies at the heart of the supermax detention philosophy. Prisoners are under around-the-clock surveillance and have no contact with each other, leaving their 7-by-12-foot cells only for a daily hour of exercise in a concrete chamber. The conditions are designed to be both harsh and secure.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said no one has escaped or even made a serious attempt to do so since the prison was built in 1994.

“I have the utmost confidence in the Bureau of Prisons, the Department of Justice and our local law enforcement agencies that they can handle anything they are tasked to do,” Florence Mayor Bart Hill said.

Not everyone in Washington has been as sanguine about Obama’s plans for the Guantanamo detainees. Lawmakers say they do not want the “worst of the worst” being brought to prisons in their states.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney led the Republican riposte, with speech last Thursday that lambasted Obama’s security and detention policies.

The Democratic-led U.S. Congress sent Obama a stinging setback by stalling funding for the closure because there is no plan on what to do with the prisoners held there.

Writing by Tim Gaynor

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