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Where to put Guantanamo prisoners? They're welcome in Colorado

Residents of Florence say they don't mind the supermax prison outside town. And a few more terrorism suspects there wouldn't bother them.

June 04, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

FLORENCE, COLO. — Like many folks in this tranquil town, Patty Liberty has no problem living just down the road from some of the world's most notorious terrorists.

Zacarias Moussaoui, known as "the 20th hijacker" for his attempts to join in the Sept. 11 attacks, resides at the supermax prison just outside the city limits. So do would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid and Ramzi Yousef, who tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski lives there too.

"We've had horrible people; you don't even think about it," said Liberty, 36 and a mother of two who works at a local gas station. How would she feel should the Obama administration move detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the maximum-security prison, a step that Colorado's senators and the congressman representing the area say would be too risky?

"As long as they keep them where they're supposed to be," Liberty said with a shrug.

It's the hottest debate in Washington -- where to put hard-core terrorists once President Obama shutters Guantanamo. The Senate last week overwhelmingly rejected providing funds to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba, saying that no community in America would want terrorism suspects in its backyard.

Maybe they haven't been to Florence. Starved for jobs 17 years ago, the town of 3,600 residents bought a chunk of land outside its borders and gave it to the federal government to build a maximum-security prison to house the worst of the worst.

Most locals don't blink at the idea of taking Guantanamo detainees -- and even the ones who object acknowledge that the issue has yet to replace cows, horses and the high school football team as a leading topic of conversation.

"People here don't care about it," said Bob Wood, editor and publisher of the community newspaper, the Florence Citizen. "We pretty much feel that if they ship them here, these guys [the federal prison guards] will take care of them."

This doesn't mean that everyone is blase about Guantanamo alumni. "They're much more skilled in being devious and getting around a system such as supermax," said Realtor Marilyn Snellstrom.

But that's a minority view. "There haven't been any escapes out there, and these guys aren't going anywhere," said City Manager Tom Piltingsrud. "I brought it up at our local Rotary Club meeting on Thursday, and nobody voiced a concern."

Obama has not specified where the 240 prisoners at Guantanamo will end up. Some, he said last week, will be released, but others will continue to be held without trial.

And supermax is almost maxed out, with only one bed to spare. Moving any detainees there would require expanding the 490-bed facility or transferring current prisoners elsewhere.

But the prison is frequently floated as a possible destination for Guantanamo inmates. Sen Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) suggested it last month, and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., also a Democrat, pitched the idea in January.

The top-security inmates at supermax are only allowed out of their cells for one hour of physical activity daily. They are completely isolated from other inmates. No one has escaped from the prison since it opened in 1994, though two inmates were killed during a riot in April 2008 that raised concerns of overcrowding.

The prison is one of nearly a dozen lockups in the vicinity of Florence, which is surrounded by arid ranchland 30 miles southwest of Colorado Springs. Several state and territorial prisons rise from the nearby hillsides.

Supermax, which sits just outside the city limits and a development built around a golf course, abuts two other, lower-security federal prisons and a minimum-security camp for nonviolent offenders. The prisons are an afterthought for most, just part of the scenery, like the craggy mouth of the Arkansas River gorge that towers to the west.

"You hear a siren around here and you think 'accident' before you think 'prisoner,' " said Diana Winkler, who works at an antiques store downtown.

Indeed, locals think the town should be better known for its 20-plus antiques stores and restored Victorians than its lockups. If Guantanamo detainees do come to supermax, they fear, Florence could become an international symbol of American oppression.

"People will know about us all over the world," said Jerry Draper, a retired schoolteacher. "What's wrong with leaving Guantanamo open?"

It was Smasher Tuesday at 2 Sisters restaurant downtown recently (a smasher is a half-pound cheeseburger and fries, which sells for $3.85). Several diners said they didn't like the idea of closing Guantanamo.

"They can't punish these guys harshly enough," said Leland Jenkins, a 54-year-old rancher, as he polished off his Smasher.

This is a conservative area -- Fremont County voted for Republican Sen. John McCain for president by a 63%-34% margin. Jenkins said of Obama, "He's not my president." But he and several others agreed that, should the president get his way with Guantanamo, Florence could be a good place for the bad guys to end up.

Citing locals' patriotism and love of the 2nd Amendment, Jenkins allowed that detainees would "be a lot safer in there [supermax] than out on the street."

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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