Outside Looking In

Courtesy of Denver Public Library - Western History Museum
Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Museum

To understand contemporary incarceration in America requires assessment of wider society’s patterns of thought about incarceration.[1] The two million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jails are often seen collectively as prisoners—by the free persons around them and the institutions which bring them together with their captors—before they are viewed as individual human persons. This way of thinking about prisoners by non-prisoners, whether consciously or unconsciously, soothes those outsiders’ concerns about injustices to those who are incarcerated. Society strips inmates of their respective identities and erasing primary labels of their individuality and humanity.  In the replacement of their names with numbers offenders’ thoughts, feelings, actions, and relationships are effectively elided. Because the prison system imposes the enduring stigma of incarceration far beyond an individual’s actual sentence, inmates will continue to be branded by their crime once they are free from the facility in which they are detained. Reduced chances of finding work and public housing, difficulty in obtaining a driver’s license, and reduced access to education are some among many struggles that lie ahead. Towns with correctional facilities participate in the construction and perpetuation of a prison stigma othering those behind walls. Visitors and locals alike focus on the fact that a town—no matter what its population, location, level of affluence, or other cultural distinctiveness—housing a prison becomes a prison town.  Such a prison-centered community is bound up not only with corrections-based society and economy, but also with prison identity.  The town’s people both define and are defined by the character of the carceral enterprise in which many of them are engaged.

Cañon City, Colorado, located about 115 miles south of Denver, is an example of a town suffering through the stigma of its long involvement with Colorado and—more recently—regional federal incarceration facilities.  It wears this identity uncomfortably, from time to time making a costly and enervating effort to rebrand itself. To understand this struggle requires attention to the relationship between the town and prisons of past and present in Cañon City and nearby Florence, Colorado. The first prison in the area now known as Cañon City was erected in 1868, before Colorado had become a state and prior to the foundation of a formal municipality on this site. The city grew up around the facility then known as Colorado Territorial Prison. For the next seventy years, the city treated prisons as integral to its identity, but more recently the community of Cañon City has attempted to break free of its identity and identification as a prison town.  It has campaigned to be known as a center of adventure tourism, a geological hotspot, an agricultural community.  It has sought redefinition as the site of the Royal Gorge, as a quaint mountain town, and as a tourist destination.

The town’s website makes no mention of its nine correctional facilities, more than 5,000 inmates, or the 1,600 Department of Correction employees who reside there.[2] Cañon’s long history as a prison town makes success in this effort difficult to achieve for the free population of this Fremont County community—and impossible for its residents behind bars.  Five thousand inmates currently live inside Cañon City’s prison walls, and as Victoria Newman points out in Prisons of Cañon City, “Cañon City is a close-knit community where everyone knows someone who works at one of the facilities,” be it a relative, neighbor, or friend.[3]


How Cañon became a correctional capital

In 1876, when Colorado joined the union, the federal government transferred management of the existing Colorado Territorial Prison to the new state, then renamed the facility Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP).[4] According to local folklore, Cañon City desired a prison as a public safety measure, because many rough and rowdy miners visited the town from local gold and silver camps.[5] Residents claimed that their proximity to the trouble these men roused and the costs to the public of transporting criminal miners elsewhere for confinement made Cañon City an obvious location for the state penitentiary. Thomas Macon, a local attorney, allegedly pushed to make Denver rather than Golden the state capital, in turn winning the support of advocates of Denver in making Cañon the site of the primary prison.[6]

Since the 1870s, the proliferation of incarceration facilities in and around the seat of Fremont county has resulted from a combination of necessity and convenience. Cañon’s citizens have lobbied for additional prisons, expecting them to enhance the local economy. One former mayor of Cañon City said, “We don’t have enough water to bring in a brewery, and IBM ain’t exactly knocking on the door. What the hell else were we supposed to do?”[7]  Cañon City now, as it was in the 1870’s, is indeed a convenient location for prisons. The availability of ample state-owned land and locals’ familiarity with living in the presence of prisons have together defined Cañon as “the prison capital of the world.”[8]

The presence of correctional facilities in Fremont County is now seen by most residents as a necessary evil, but there is no denying that it is in some respects an evil. Not only does the incarceration of alarmingly high rates of African American males for minor drug offenses point to injustice in the American criminal justice system and, by extension, the town’s prisons, but the local population also to an extent suffers in the atmosphere of penality.  Cañon City has high rates of abuse of women, drugs, and alcohol. Eric Williams, author of The Big House in a Small Town: Prisons, Communities, and Economics in Rural America, describes the presence of prisons within a community as a “deal with the devil.” Williams affirms that prisons are invited into economically struggling built in hopes of improving local possibilities—by adding jobs, increasing construction, and boosting industry. Fulfilment of these desires, though, is beyond a given town’s control. Once a town has a prison, the prison often begins to define it. The town is still seeking to outrun how it branded itself in the first place, and prove there is more to its community than its prisons.[9]

The particular situation of Cañon City as a prison town is to an extent determined by the long history of prisons within European and American culture.  General sentiment toward prisons has shifted in the last three centuries from a view in which prison was a holding place until punishment was determined to understanding of incarceration as itself the punishment for criminality. By the mid-nineteenth century, public discourse worked against public shaming or capital punishment and in favor of social exclusion through imprisonment for most offenders.[10] Prisons in the twentieth century were then characterized by reformist efforts to improve health, living, and working conditions within prison walls.  Today critics of the carceral state such as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, argue that the prison system is a tool used to discriminately suppress African American males.[11] The system is far from perfect, begging total reform.


Cañon’s residents and escaped convicts

At different moments in its history, the community of Cañon City has interacted in different ways with the correctional complexes within its town in respect, as well, to prison breaks, the relationship between the warden and the town, and in how the town describes itself in relation to incarceration. On the night of January 22, 1900, for instance, four CSP inmates escaped the prison. In the confusion, prison officials feared all the prisoners may have fled. Quickly, the town responded. Hardware store owners contributed guns, axes, and other weapons for men to arm themselves while women and children huddled indoors. Three days later, word got around that two of the escapees had been captured and brought back to CSP. That night, feigning a gathering to fight a fire, the men of Cañon City assembled as effective vigilantes, then discovered that the fourth escapee had been captured and was to return that night. Concealing their weapons and motives, the men crowded the prison gate as Reynolds, the fourth prisoner, was brought back in. Overpowering the guards, the townsmen dragged Reynolds to an electric light pole stand and hanged him.[12] At the turn of the century, evidently, the citizens of Cañon City reacted personally to offenses inmates had committed. Today such direct intervention in the prison staff’s responsibilities would be unthinkable.

Another escape attempt instructive about town-prison relations took place in 1971. Two men on death row, Ernest Alsip and Michael Bell, daringly mounted the CSP roof, shimmied down a drainpipe, climbed the wall, hopped onto a shed, made it to Tower 6, and then dropped to the garage roof off the east side of the prison wall.   They apparently planned to disappear into the crowd attending the Music and Blossom Festival in Cañon City that day. The festival audience assumed the escape and shooting to be street theater.  They screamed, laughed, and yelled in expression of their appreciation for the excitement and realism of the spectacle.  This failed escape points to how the community’s relationship with CSP had changed since the beginning of the century.  In the 1900 escape, the men of the town reacted with anger and violence. In 1971, a crowd including school-age children saw an actual escape as a thrilling show.  In the meantime, Hollywood had begun to glamorize prison escapes, as in the 1948 film Cañon City.  The town’s credulity in 1971 contrasts sharply with the anger seen in 1900, raising the question of why the community went from seeing the prisons and its activity as integral to Cañon City life to understanding them as separate and spectacular.


Cañon’s relationship with corrections staff

Changing relations between the prison and the community of Cañon City can also be seen in the interactions between wardens, later known as superintendents, and Cañon City’s citizens. A major shift occurred in the 1970s when an important position in the Colorado State Penitentiary was transformed. In 1972, the office of “warden” was renamed “superintendent,” with accompanying shifts in the character of the position.  Superintendents were understood as stepping away from the personal relations with inmates central to earlier wardens’ management of the facility. Long-term residents of Cañon today recollect wardens up until the 70s as household names—men of whom the community was proud.  Wardens often had inmates working in their home as nannies, chefs, and housemaids—a practice now long lapsed.[13] The superintendent is now a more professional and less autonomous figure, no longer bridging the gap in his human relationships between life outside the wall and life within.[14]

Without the intermediary figure of the warden, the formerly cordial relationship between Colorado State Penitentiary and the community seems to many citizens to have ceased to exist. As the penal system began across the twentieth century increasingly to restrict the freedoms and individuality of the inmates, prison towns have been correspondingly impacted. Correctional officers and their families have felt changing patterns of incarceration change their own lives as economically, socially, and regionally determined. Joe Peter, a member of the Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Inc., in Cañon City, agrees that being a correctional officer in the prison “does create more propensity toward alcohol and drug abuse.”[15]

Still, citizens of Cañon stress that the correctional officers are in no way excluded from the community. Although it may seem as convenient for those living outside the criminal justice system to forget that a correctional officer is more than his or her job as it is to forget that a prisoner is a human, a prison town is still a town. Dennis Kleinsasser, head of health services at the Department of Corrections in Cañon City agrees that “the assumption that an officer is cold and callous is erroneous” and that they too are “human beings, just like they rest of us.”[16] That the public can admit that those working in the facilities are human raises the possibility that it be open to understanding that those incarcerated within the facilities also share in a universal humanity. The treatment accorded inmates in and after prison, however, and the high rates of incarceration in this country point to the fact that many in Cañon City as elsewhere would rather continue to be unaware of inmates’ condition than to take action toward prison reform. Cañon City, like all small towns with prisons, struggles with the paradox: it is as difficult for Cañon to forge an identity other than as a prison town as it is for its former inmates to be seen as more than, different from active criminals.


[1] Originally researched and drafted by Cait McHale.

[2] “Cañon City, Colorado,” accessed August 2, 2016, http://www.canoncity.org/i_want_to/index.php.

[3] Victoria R. Newman, Images of America: Prisons of Cañon City (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 105.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Julie Whitmore, A History of Colorado State Penitentiary 1981-1980 (Canon City, CO: Printing Plus, 1984), 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Eric Williams, The Big House in a Small Town: Prisons, Communities, and Economies in Rural America (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2011), 61.

[8] Newman, 7.

[9] Williams, 84.

[10] David J. Rothman, “Perfecting the Prison,” in The Oxford History of Prisons: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, ed. Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 103.

[11] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 7.

[12] Whitmore, 94-95.

[13] Jody Jacobshagen, audio interview with Pat McFarland, 1992, CD, Royal Gorge Regional Museum (hereafter RGRM).

[14] Williams, 62.

[15] Joe Peter, “Stress Placed on Prison’s Guards Evident in Canon City Daily Life,” unattributed fragment, 1983, RGRM, “Prisons-Officers” folder.

[16] Ibid.