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Colorado Town Ponders Accepting Guantanamo Detainees


In this country, the Pentagon has been looking for new places to hold detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the prison President Obama wants too close. One possibility is Fremont County in southeastern Colorado. NPR's David Welna paid a visit.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The town of Florence, Colo. sits on a mile-high scrubby plain framed by the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

MIKE PATTERSON: This entire area out there in the warmer weather is completely rattlesnake infested, rattlesnakes everywhere.

WELNA: That's Florence city manager Mike Patterson. We're just outside town, driving past the Florence Federal Correctional Complex, better known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies.

PATTERSON: You can see just around the U.S. penitentiary the razor wire and multiple levels, and that's just the U.S. penitentiary. That's just the maximum security, not the Supermax.

WELNA: The list of inmates being held at the Supermax is a who's who of notorious criminals, from unabomber Ted Kaczynski to no less than 19 al-Qaeda figures, including shoe bomber Richard Reid and 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Back in town, Patterson seems convinced the Alcatraz of the Rockies is the Obama administration's top choice for the Guantanamo detainees.

PATTERSON: We know that if they're going to pick a place in America, Florence is probably as great a place as they could probably put it. I mean, we already have prisons. We know it. We deal with that reality. We're not a nimby kind of place. We probably - as much as we don't want it, we're probably going to fight it less than other places.

WELNA: But some here do intend to put up a fight.

DEBBIE BELL: I don't want to see them not only here, I don't want to see them on American soil.

WELNA: Debbie Bell is a Fremont County commissioner.

BELL: We are not people who say, you know, oh, no, no, I don't want inmates here, I don't want prisoners here. These particular detainees, on the other hand, bring with them a higher level of threat than anything I believe we've ever seen before.

WELNA: It's a view many in this town of 3,800 also share. But others see no reason to be alarmed. At the Pour House Coffee Shop on Main Street, when owner Kenny Paul finishes some bean grinding, I ask what he thinks about Guantanamo detainees possibly being transferred to Florence.

KENNY PAUL: It doesn't really bother me. Yeah, I'm pretty sure we already have some of the high-profile 9/11 prisoners already out there. People seem to be making a stink about that, that there are people that are potential terrorists. I don't think they realize some of the profiled prisoners we already have out there.

WELNA: At a table outside, life coach Janna Hagan is not so convinced. Just because Florence could hold Guantanamo detainees, she says, does not mean it should.

JANNA HAGAN: It doesn't really benefit us in any way, shape or form. The only thing it brings would be more jobs to the city, and that's it.

WELNA: Would that be good?

HAGAN: Potentially.

WELNA: That's because lately there's been a shortage of inmates for this county and its 15 prisons. A $200 million solitary confinement facility built by the state of Colorado has stood empty for the past three years.

FRANCIS WILLIAMS: That's the Colorado State Penitentiary, and that's the towers over there.

WELNA: Sergeant Francis Williams of the Colorado Department of Corrections points out the hulking seven-story prison with no one inside it.

WILLIAMS: That's the one they're talking about putting the guys in.

WELNA: That talk of bringing Guantanamo captives here has lit a fire under Fremont County Sheriff Jim Beicker. Last week, Beicker and 39 other Colorado sheriffs sent President Obama a letter.

JIM BEICKER: The letter, on its basic level, says, Mr. President, we don't approve of you bringing them to Colorado, and that's because we're Colorado sheriffs.

WELNA: And it's also, Beicker says, his duty as an elected Republican official to act.

BEICKER: Quite frankly, people are upset. They're no longer willing to sit back and maybe do nothing, you know. The silent majority - there's a few that aren't going to be silent anymore. And I actually was approached by - we're thinking of doing this, sheriff, and are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

WELNA: The sheriff says already there is talk of locals gathering at the prison gates to keep out any Guantanamo transfers. Tony Greer hopes that's just talk. Greer has just a couple of months left in his term as mayor of Canon City, Fremont County's biggest town. If his town gets called to serve, he says, it will step up.

TONY GREER: I suppose I would prefer not to have war criminals or war prisoners in our community. On the other hand, we are a prison community. And if I were assigned the task from Washington to choose a site, certainly this would be on my short list.

WELNA: And those who know the prisons here well say having the Guantanamo detainees in southeastern Colorado would be no big deal. Charles Ahart worked 17 years in the local prisons before retiring.

CHARLES AHART: Canon City's had prisons here forever. And there are a few problems that come along with it, but it's all handled very well.

WELNA: So you're not concerned about the prospect of Guantanamo detainees coming here.

AHART: No, not at all.

WELNA: Still, it would be nice, says Florence city manager Patterson, if officials in Washington would just let their intentions be known.

PATTERSON: Tell us what's going on. Work with us. If you really are going to put them here, then talk to us and start working with us on security because we have big concerns about the safety of our children and our community.

WELNA: But President Obama has not yet sent Congress his promised plan to close Guantanamo. Last night, a Pentagon official said no site's yet been selected to house its remaining detainees. David Welna, NPR News, Fremont County, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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