By Dianne Frazee-Walker

The Royal Gorge fire near Canon City, Colorado was burning out of control on Tuesday June 11th.

Canon City is the home of thirteen prisons located 114 miles south of Denver.

Smoke loomed over the oldest territorial prison in Colorado last Tuesday night causing the forest service to request the State evacuate the entire prison population for the first time in the prison’s history.

Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, home of the soaring suspension bridge spanning the canyon across the Arkansas River is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Colorado.

The wildfire was only four to five miles away from the prison; so dangerously close that it was deemed unsafe for prisoners, especially those with respiratory problems.

Twenty-four of the prison’s hospital inmates including hospice patients were evacuated to Denver at 6:30pm.

Around 10:30 pm prison officials began with the daunting task of rounding up 881 of the prison’s occupants, which included the prison’s infirmary, hospice, and geriatric units. Evacuees included mentally ill and medical patients, rapists, serial killers, kidnappers, and other dangerous prisoners.

59-year-old Marvin Gray was among the inmates evacuated. Gray brags about killing over 40 people across the country.

Special needs inmates equipped with wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, walkers, and canes were loaded aboard gray correctional buses during the ash filled evening. Threatening flames advanced over the mountains that border the prison walls and barbwire fences.

The last bus left the prison at 7:19 am on Wednesday morning.

The prisoners were transported in 17 buses accompanied by patrol cars that caravaned past the dark Canon City streets throughout the smoky night. One hundred correctional workers from the east side of Canon City were called in to help with the evacuation.

The destination was two-hours away at the Centennial Correctional Facility, located in a south Denver suburb. Centennial Prison was vacant because it has been closed since 2012.

Alison Morgan, spokesperson for Colorado Corrections explains, “This was done as a precautionary, preemptive operation so we could move in a methodical and organized manner.”

There was a strategy behind every move prison officials executed throughout the evening. The reason the majority of prisoners were not released into the open air until later in the evening was the temperature and ash content on the prison grounds decreased as the night went on. Also, it was less stressful to transport the inmates in the cooler air.

Evacuating the geriatric inmates was not the most significant challenge facing prison officials a week ago, Tuesday night. Considering the community’s safety while moving the general population posed a more pressing situation.

“I’m not aware of any mishaps,” Morgan said. “It was run with military precision.”

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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