Shared from The Denver Post: http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODN/DenverPost/shared/ShowArticle.aspx?doc=TDP%2F2019%2F06%2F26&entity=Ar00104&sk=12EB7313&mode=text
Sheriff has $462 million solution that could mean a tax hike
Inmates are booked at the jail in Arapahoe County. Built in 1986 to house 386 inmates, the jail has nowhere to grow, the sheriff says.
Inside the crowded Arapahoe County Detention Center, inmates often sleep triple bunked in cells the size of an office cubicle. Between a cell’s bunk bed, toilet and desk, inmates have little room to move in the 70-square-foot space.
And triple bunking isn’t the only problem inside one of the state’s largest jails, Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said. The pipes are leaking, the kitchen is too small, staff members work out of former visitation rooms, and there is only one classroom for nearly 1,200 inmates. The rapidly populating county has outgrown the outdated, too-small facility that was built in 1986 to hold 386 inmates, Brown said.
For a decade, the sheriff’s office has repaired and retrofitted the jail to expand its capacity. But there are no more efficiencies to be made, Brown said. That’s why he wants a new $462 million jail that will increase the number of beds by 200 and create more space for services meant to limit the number of inmates who set foot in the jail in the first place.
“The space that we need isn’t more beds, it’s processing and programming,” said Vince Line, detention bureau chief for the sheriff’s office. “We could be doing so much more.”
Newly elected Brown joins the ranks of many other Colorado sheriffs who for years have pushed for new jails to ease overcrowding and replace outdated facilities. Even when counties built new, larger facilities, many filled quicker than expected. Although the number of arrests statewide has declined since 1997, the state’s jail population has grown more than 60 percent in that time, federal statistics show.
Sheriffs, lawmakers and criminal justice reform activists point to a wide range of explanations and solutions for the phenomena, which became the focus of a number of bills in the 2019 legislative session. Brown in part attributes the high number of inmates to a rise in the number of serious crimes in the area, resulting in longer stays and higher bond amounts. Activists, however, point to bail practices and how the criminal justice system handles addiction as some of the main drivers.
Arapahoe County is not exempt from the trend. Arrests by the eight agencies that use the county jail dropped steadily to 24,332 in 2017 from 31,418 in 2008, according to federal statistics. The jail’s population dipped to a low average of 976 inmates on any day in 2014 but has risen every year since then. This year, the average daily population regularly has numbered more than 1,100 and sometimes has exceeded 1,200.
More than half of those in the jail have not been convicted and are waiting for their case to be decided.
The jail’s inmate population regularly hovers at or above 80 percent of its 1,458 beds — the limit considered functional capacity in jails — and the building’s design means it has nowhere to grow. That many people jammed together creates stress and danger for inmates and staff alike, Brown said. Twenty-four deputies were injured by inmates last year, the highest ever recorded in the jail.
“It’s a pressure cooker,” Brown said.
But other Colorado sheriffs’ campaigns for new jails in recent years show a new Arapahoe County Jail may be a long way off.
Inmates splashed through a puddle in the kitchen of the Arapahoe County Jail last week as they prepared lunch for their 1,180 peers. The tile-covered concrete floor has been damaged by decades of use. Inches-deep gashes in the middle of the kitchen fill with water daily as thousands of meals are prepared in a kitchen designed to feed 386.
The sheriff’s office tried to hire a contractor to fix the floor, but the damage was so bad no company would put in a bid, Line said.
The booking area is the busiest part of the entire facility, Line said. It’s where new arrivals are processed, departing inmates are released and inmates traveling to court or medical appointments wait for transport.
It’s difficult to keep inmates who are enemies or co-defendants apart from each other in the small space, he said. Deputies and officers dropping off people who have been arrested sometimes have to wait in long lines to access the limited spots in the jail’s secure unloading area. On one night last week, 81 inmates stayed in the booking area designed for 29.
“It’s kind of like playing Tetris,” Line said as he gave a tour to a Denver Post reporter.
The jail in 2005 added two more pods to the original building to make room for more inmates, but those pods filled quickly. The sheriff’s office double bunked cells, then triple bunked them. The facility often does not meet the standard ratio of square feet per inmate in day rooms and outdoor exercise space required for its accreditation, Line said.
“We’re efficiency-ed out,” Brown said.
Repairing the facility’s troubled plumbing sometimes means that dozens of inmates have to be moved from their cells and day room area and then crowded into an open-air yard during rain or snow because there’s nowhere else for them to go. Over the past 10 years, the jail and the courthouse have sucked up 20 percent, or $32 million, of the county’s total building improvement budget, said Michelle Halstead, Arapahoe County spokeswoman.
But the biggest problem, Line said, is that there is no space to provide the programs and services shown to reduce recidivism and prepare inmates to re-enter the outside world. There are 10 computers, one classroom and limited services available to the more than 1,100 inmates in the facility on any given day. The jail has one full-time and one part-time employee overseeing inmate programs. The limited space has forced Line to turn down grant money for new services, he said.
“Even if I got another employee I have nowhere to put them,” Line said.
Plans for the new facility include 1,612 beds, a new booking center, a medical and behavioral health unit, 11 classrooms and a new outpatient health facility. The facility would also require more employees and different operating costs that are not included in the $462 million estimate.
“It’s a large price tag, there’s no doubt about it,” said Jeff Baker, chairman of the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners. “The biggest challenge is figuring out how to fund it.”
Current county revenue could not pay for the new facility, he said. Instead, the county will have to explore grants and the possibility of property or sales tax increases. A 25-person planning committee will make recommendations for solutions in July.
“Nothing is off the table,” Baker said.
Baker recognized that it might be hard to convince voters to raise taxes to improve conditions for inmates.
“It’s not to make it easier for people to do their time,” he said. “It’s to make it safer. Our job is to treat these prisoners with respect, human dignity and give them the resources necessary to excel, to return to the community better than when they came into the jail.”
Brown’s recent push for publicity about the jail adds him to the ranks of several other Colorado sheriffs trying to win over public support for renovation or rebuilding of their facilities. Brown’s predecessors, Dave Walcher and Grayson Robinson, also campaigned for a new Arapahoe County Jail.
Many of Colorado’s jails are overcrowded, and it can take years for counties to address the problem. When they are built, they often fill quickly.
Before even approaching the question of funding, sheriffs first have to convince taxpayers to care about the jail and the people who live there, Ted Mink, interim executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, said. It can be easy for people not involved in the justice system to not pay attention, he said.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle pushed for solutions for his overcrowded jail for years before voters in November approved funding for an alternative facility. Denver city officials persuaded voters to build a $378 million justice center downtown that included a new jail, intended to relieve overcrowding at the Smith Road facility. That new jail, the Downtown Detention Center, soon became overcrowded as well. Pueblo County jail deputies went door to door in 2017 to ask residents to approve a tax hike for a new facility, but voters still said no.
“You need to keep beating the drum,” Mink said. “Sheriff Brown is doing the right thing in beating the drum and making people aware. At some point, they’re going to have to do something about it.”
A snapshot of jail populations on a single day in November 2017 shows that 21 of the state’s 57 jails were more than 80 percent full, including Adams, Denver and Jefferson counties, according to data compiled by the ACLU of Colorado.
The Arapahoe County Justice Coordinating Committee also has tried a number of alternative solutions to minimize jail population, said Kally Enright, criminal justice planner for the county.
Crowding of the state’s prisons and jails inspired a number of bills passed by lawmakers in the last session intended to limit the number of people in jails and how long inmates stay there before trial. Laws included eliminating and defelonizing some drug crimes, eliminating cash bail for petty offenses and creating timelines for setting bail and releasing those who pay it.
Becca Curry, staff attorney at the ACLU of Colorado, said Arapahoe County and other agencies considering a new jail should hold off until there’s enough time to see how the new laws affect jail populations. Once a jail is larger, those working in the criminal justice system lose the incentive to try alternative methods to reducing inmate populations.
“It ends up being a Band-Aid on the much bigger problem of over-incarceration in Colorado,” she said.