“Prison Valley”: The Town With 13 Prisons

PVlogoThere is a place in the U.S. where prison defines the culture of the area around it. That city is Canon City, Colorado, and it is described on the Prison Valley website as:

A town in the middle of nowhere with 36,000 souls and 13 prisons, one of which is Supermax, the new ‘Alcatraz’ of America. A prison town where even those living on the outside live on the inside. A journey into what the future might hold.

The idea boggles the mind. When you start to remember every news item you’ve seen over the decades about prison overcrowding — and realize that each year it’s getting worse — that boggle becomes a chill. Sixteen percent of Canon City’s population are prisoners.

Now you can visit Canon City as easily as you can fire up your web browser. Journalist David Dufresne and photographer Philippe Brault have created an interactive web documentary about the town. Once you start it, you get a narrated drive into the area telling you about the prisons and the settlement that grew up around them. Narrated sequences alternate with interactive experiences to allow you a very organic and in-depth view of the area.

Alison Herd, a writer for Radio France Internationale, comments on the interactive and the social-media-driven aspects of the project:

[…U]sers can check into a room at the motel with a personal Facebook or Twitter account, attend the Dead Warden ceremony run by the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation, visit the prison museum or find out more about the Supermax prison (known as the ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies’).

Above all, the work invites you to go beyond the film, to take part in online debates and exchange emails with people who appear in the documentary.

‘For me, web documentary needs interactivity,’ says photographer Philippe Brault.

‘In Prison Valley we tried to bring debate into the issue of locking people up. That was the ultimate goal: to set off from a small town in Colorado, surrounded by thirteen prisons, soon to be fourteen, and have that story generate debate.’

That is something we applaud. Our own offerings here at HUMANE EXPOSURES are also geared towards expanding the conversation around these topics and exploring possibilities for substantive change. (Just take a look at the items we cover daily on this blog.)

So, please watch Prison Valley. If the awards mean anything, you’re in for quite a ride! Just take a look at what the piece has garnered already in 2010:


Official Selections:

It’s a fascinating use of technology and an important study of where the out-of-control penal system could lead if substantive changes are not made. To watch the film, click on this link: Watch Prison Valley Now.

Source: “SOS photojournalism: web docs to the rescue?” Radio France Internationale, 09/1/10
Source: “Prison Valley,” Prison Valley, 2010
Prison Valley Logo, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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  1. Doesnt sound like aplace to raise a family

  2. Canon Resident says:

    What a load of crap. I live here and have been here for many years. The prisons do employ a lot of people but our economy is not based completely on them. We have a great deal to offer, tourism, industry, ourdoor activities. This is not a gloom and doom kind of place. I love being here and raising my family here. Check out canon city on the web yourself to see what is really going on and not this skewed view.

  3. linjaynes says:

    Heres what I know about Canon City Prison from many years back. I had a relative who got into trouble when he was just 17, he was hitchhiking from Louisiana where he & his new young bride lived with our parents, while trying to get financially stable & get an Apartment of there very own. His also young wife , decided after two months of marriage she wanted to go home to her parents.
    She crept out early one morning after he was @ work with our father & when he came home she was gone. That began a saga that tore the very fabric of my childhood & my entire families World apart. My Brother set out walking from Louisiana, to Oklahoma, to get her back, along the way he got a ride from a very seemingly nice kid also. What the kid didnt tell him was the car was stolen. We saw my 17 year old brother on TV that night & found out the State Troopers had riddled the car with Bullets trying to get the idiot to stop , as they were chasing him on some hwy in Oklahoma. Thats how we found out he was in trouble, we saw the car on TV & both were in handcuffs & my Mother promptly fainted in our Living Room & my father said Oh Lordy is my Boy dead? Long story short they found them both guilty, didnt matter my Brother wasn’t driving , wasn’t with him when the car was stolen, or that the guy who was over 21 then, told the judge my brother was just hitchhiking. Back then kangaroo Courts were the norm for many southern backwater towns. The sentence was prison for him, even with Know prior criminal history in his Lifetime. He was sent to a federal Correction facility, in Colorado known as FCI. We uprooted , left the South My only Home since Birth,& moved to Denver Co. to be close & visit him for the next nearly two years he was there. I was only 12 & adored my big brother. We went every Sunday to see him, until he was free. During that time one of the Guards was talking in the break Room, as I waited for a key to the rest room, when I heard him say laughingly to the other guard & I will never forget it if I live to be 100 yrs old, they were talking about Canon City Prison & how rough a place it was, the guard said these guys got know idea how good they got it in here, last night one guy tried to escape from canon city & they shot him when he got on the fence & they just left him there all night for the rest of them to see till morning. True Story 1959/60.

  4. JTB says:

    I can’t believe this video!! I am a Canon City resident and I LOVE it here. My husband and I raise our three kids and it is not a doom and gloom place. It is beautiful here and the weather is fabulous. People ride bikes and hike and there are many tourist attractions here. It is not a dark place and I am upset at how the video was portrayed… dreary coloring and pictures of signs out of context. What a misinforming representation of a lovely little city.

  5. Kaiser says:

    I just moved here, doesn’t seem that bad.

  6. ETA says:

    This city is wonderful. It may be run down but no one cares. There is tons of fun. You can have breakfast at Dennys and take a wonderful hike in the hiking trails we have. You can go bowling and go to the Royal Gorge. We have parades and carnivals and circuses . We have plenty of churches if your religious. Dont put down a wonderful city that you dont even know anything about.

  7. The responses so far from within your community all stress things like hiking trails and such rather than addressing the issues of the article. The commentary is about a place where the majority of the workforce is all employed by the prison corps. If you would care to share more information on that aspect of life there I would be most interested in seeing your data.

  8. Lou Blumenfeld says:

    I have a very close friend who lives in Canyon City and their home is adorable. The antique shops great and the town is sweet. yes a large population is employed at the prison and yes it supplies jobs. But canyon city is close to the Royal Gorge and other sites. now onto what I know :

    I was raised 5th generation in Denver Colorado .
    I have a brother inside that prison a sex offender who refuses to take class or try to improve his life one wit. He does not want to get out because he does not want to pay restitution to the two tiny girls he hurt in 1998 and his trial took a long time . He would not admit it and to the alford plea. in the meantime it was found out he had been molesting for years a family friends child with special needs. His sentence went from 2-life to 88888. meaning until death does he part. In the past he threatened my baby sister and he sent letters to my daughter that were incestuous. Do I believe he is safe for a parole hearing? no. He has attempted suicide 5 x and wanted me to feel sorry for him. I can’t. I feel that he is where he should be and stay there. can a person be made evil in this case ? yes. He had parents who abused him and broke his spirit . In return his GF was beaten a few times and he killed his own dog.

    as with everything however a tiny few are people who were set up years ago and some never left unless in a box. I feel bad for humanity and I feel bad that he hurt many many people. I shall never feel bad for him.

  9. Lou, one of the things that we stress as being axiomatic is the relationship between early childhood experiences and future brushes with the law. Your brother’s story is tragic. There are, however, many imprisoned for far lesser things. In some cases unjustly.

    The focus of this piece was more a look at someplace where the prison industry is nearly the only industry. When nearly the entire population makes a living on incarceration in one way or another it does make one worry.

  10. Wilma Dyer says:

    A typical liberal smear job from someone who is desperate to stay relevant or needed a paycheck and played the touchy-feely card. And an equal crapload of know-nothing comments from people who… know nothing. The corrections jobs here are not the majority of all jobs – far from it. “The only industry…” ridiculous. Did Williams ever, really, come here? The population is not and has never been 36,000. And no prison escaper was ever shot and left hanging on a fence all night. Some low-life, low-dollar people will do anything for a dollar.

  11. Wilma, I appreciate your taking the time to comment despite the fact that you see this as a “liberal smear job”. For one thing our team is made up of both liberals and conservatives (actually more of the latter to be honest) who agree of a fact based approach. For another, a no time did I ever say I had been there. If you would be kind enough to read the post in its entirety you will see that it is about the media project which these numbers came from. If you have better documentation pelease provide it. You give us an awful lot of assertions, and I mean no disrespect by this, but in order to take them seriously I need some proof that what you are saying has more validity than the facts already presented to us.

  12. Lola says:

    I was pretty excited to watch this but that excitement dissolved in the first few minutes as it started with scary music and dark lighting. I grew up there, and it’s a great place. Not that you could tell it from the video, but it’s actually one of the sunniest places I’ve lived.
    Sure, the prisons are a fixture and provide a lot of jobs but it definitely didn’t seem to affect the nature of the town (other than the fact that most of us know more prison vocab than usual). It’s just a job. Having all of them together does provide job security but it also makes it easier for them to work together and go between facilities when they get raises. It’s practical.
    Saying that it’s put a dark cloud on the city just seems silly to me. It’s just a normal small town with normal people in it.

  13. canon resident says:

    The only thing that makes this place suck is the lack of things to do especially in the winter. It’s not dark and gloomy, I’ve lived here for my whole life, I mean yeah there are weirdos here but they’re everywhere, yeah the prisons offer a lot of jobs, but most people don’t want to do it, and we have plenty of restaurants and dam hotels to supply jobs

  14. Ingrid says:

    Canon City can be very boring sometimes really!!! but in comparison with other towns and cities, it is very safe, for children is great! we really need here is a skating rink or a paved place where children can ride their skates and boards
    It is unreal safe!!! I have never seen violence or weird things here and that for me means peace of mind!! it is a beautiful town, landscapes are gorgeous, the river is so pretty,It is not a gloomy place at all, winter here is pretty, Christmas is fun, it is a place to raise children for sure. Fot me as an adult can get really boring sometimes but to see my daughter safe and happy, pays somehow back.

  15. joe says:

    My wife is from Canon City so when we got married I rented a place here. I’ve read the comments of people that live here and they are very biased of course. I know lots of people that live off the prison system or who are retired and continue to live off it. With thirteen prisons how can they deny that the town doesn’t depend on the prisons for income, where do you think the workers come from? As far as the atmosphere it is definitely a gloomy place to live in, you are surrounded by prisons and to top it all off the county jail is within the city limits as well. The saying around here is “come on vacation leave on probation”. The town is very small, but there seem to be lots and lots of cops who are very rude when dealing with people. I can only describe it as a superiority complex. I know because I’ve had to deal with them and I know lots of people that have as well. I know what people are going to say, oh you must be into criminal activity. No far from it, I am a professional, I won’t say what industry, but I will say that I’ve done very well for myself. People that defend the prison economy is probably because they or members of their family is employed with the prison system. All you have to do is take a look around and see how many guards in uniform walk around or drive around the few stores that we have here. I have so much more I want to say about this place, but I’ll keep it short. I’ve lived here a few years now and I’ve attended the few festivals they have every year, but I’ve stopped because there are so many cops around during those times. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. It just makes me feel paranoid, so I just avoid them.

  16. Ron says:

    What a bunch of sensationalist horsehockey! I do NOT live in Canon City, but I’ve been there many times. It is absolutely not true that the prison population has much to do with the society or business of the town. It certainly doesn’t make it dark or foreboding. Also, the prison population is not any part of Canon City’s population, as stated. In the first place most of the prisons are not even in the city. In the second place, prisoners are NOT citizens of Canon City or any of the other towns nearby. And they will most likely go back to their previous locations when they are released. So you who helped generate them will probably get them back. Which is fitting, since it is YOUR society that help generate them, and nothing to do with Canon City.

  17. A recently singled mom of three says:

    My husband was just given a unfitting sentence in the Colorado prison system for injuring a man that had me pinned to a pool table treatening to rape me! For one the punishment didn’t fit the “crime” and the “victim” has since moved to az to prey upon other women and go unpunished!-anyway luckily my husband didn’t end up in canyon city but I have learned so much about the inner workings of these places and yes their are offenders/ sexual predators/murders that do need to be in these places but the facilities get $60,000 a year per inmate-more than 80% of Americans it’s a money making system with no intention on “rehabilitating” anyone! You wouldn’t believe the culture in there-they are just breeding and growing worse criminals-with no choice from the offenders other than to survive! And I too have been to canyon city and you would have to be stupid not to think that the town depends on those prisons for survival! It’s a scary state off affairs!

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