Jail crowding causes safety, staffing concerns from Fort Collins to Pueblo
PUEBLO — Jail staff and inmates alike call them boats. They’re 4-inch-deep plastic tubs, often filled with blankets or personal items. Flipped over, inmates sleep on them, so they’re not forced to sleep on the ground.
In the Pueblo County Detention Center, they’re everywhere.
“We stick it under the desk,” inmate Jeff Roybal said, pointing to the tucked-away boat that allows three inmates to sleep in Roybal's two-man cell. “Luckily, we have a little guy in there with us.”
Pueblo County is the most crowded jail along Colorado's Front Range — a title that is hard-earned and unwanted, but not altogether unique. Of 10 counties on the Front Range, from the Wyoming border to Pueblo, six operated at or near capacity this summer. That includes Larimer, El Paso, Denver, Jefferson and Weld counties. Those capacity numbers don't account for inmates being shipped out to less crowded jails in rural counties.
Colorado's jails mostly house people who've been charged with crimes but who have not yet had their time in court. They also tend to face circumstances beyond their own control, from the local economy to local crime trends, making the problems facing each unique. Pueblo County represents an extreme example of what can happen when all the wrong pieces fall into place.
“We are the most profoundly overcrowded (jail) in the state of Colorado,” Pueblo County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff J.R. Hall said. “(The numbers) just keep climbing.”
In July, the Pueblo County Detention Center operated at about 145 percent of its planned capacity — it housed an average of 738 inmates daily in a facility designed to hold 509. The Larimer County Jail was at 101 percent capacity at that same time. A concern, to be sure, but one Pueblo County officials deem a world away.
“100 percent?” Jeffrey S. Teschner, detention bureau chief for Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office, asks, before clutching his hand to his chest and laughing. “Be still, my heart.”
Pushed to the brink of closure
While July was a high-water mark this year for Larimer County's jail population, crowding has only worsened for Pueblo County. During a tour of the Pueblo County jail at the end of September, 790 inmates pushed operations to 160 percent of the lockup's intended capacity.
Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor said the jail has stopped taking any it isn't required to, such as people on immigration detainers or paroloees waiting for release into the community. About three-quarters of the jail population are inmates waiting for trial, he said.
In what was formerly the recreation room of the Pueblo County Detention Center, the inmates all but swarm the warden as he introduces himself.
The room is filled with bunk beds. It used to be called the “fight club” by jail staff; a deputy now watches it around the clock.
The roof is leaking. Mold is pouring out of fixtures in the bathroom. Inmates need to eat meals in their bunks. The complaints go on.
On this rainy Thursday, Colorado’s fullest jail isn’t just bursting at the seams; it’s stretched into something almost unrecognizable — as much an overflowing, outdated storage unit as secured housing for individuals awaiting trial.
Pueblo County officials blame a perfect storm, of sorts, for the jail's capacity problems. Its main building opened in 1980; the natural lifespan of a jail is about 30 to 40 years. A jump in drug addiction and related property crimes keeps people revolving in and out of custody. And, Sheriff Kirk Taylor and his staff says, a slew of laws designed to keep people out of prison only had the effect of pushing them into jails.
That included reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors and extending jail stays to up to two years.
“It sounds good because it sounds like we don’t want to put a bunch of people behind bars,” Hall said. “But what it means is we’re moving people into the county level.”
The situation at the jail reminds Teschner of a lawsuit from the 1970s, Ramos v. Lamm. Conditions in the “Old Max” prison in Cañon City were so bad that a federal judge closed it down.
“Could that happen with us?” Teschner asks. “Absolutely. We’re very, very close.”
There are also day-to-day worries. Overcrowding stretches jail staff thin, and it doesn't take long for a group of inmates to severely beat another. It also makes staff more vulnerable to violent inmates. Jail officials pointed to two assaults on staff in March, including an inmate shooting a deputy with another deputy's taser.
A 'catch and release' solution?
While Pueblo County is trying to fit 18 eggs in a dozen-egg carton — and drum up public support to pass a bond to build a new jail and detox and treatment center — jail staff in Boulder County are feeling the unease of things going too smoothly.
While Larimer County’s jail population hit its peak in July, Boulder County’s jail was at 77 percent of capacity. National guidelines urge jails to aim for operating at no more than 80 percent of maximum capacity so they can be flexible in housing different populations. They can’t mix and match genders, for instance, so an influx of female inmates can affect overall inmate housing practices.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith notes that Boulder County has a similar makeup to Larimer County, moreso than Pueblo. It is also behind Larimer County in terms of diversion services, Smith said.
Jeff Goetz, the jail division chief for Boulder County, said the facility sees seasonal ebbs and flows in inmate numbers, like most jails. University students return and start class, and inmate numbers increase. Warm summer weather emerges, another jump. Jail staff could even pin when a new class of police officer joins the ranks, as the department tends to make warrant sweeps and increase arrests to give new police officers experience, Goetz said.
Amid an uptick in inmate numbers four years ago, Boulder County started looking at its criminal justice system and how it operates, from the District Attorney's office to the jail. Best practices in the county changed, and the jail started noticing.
“We have some lulls that are pre-planned every year that we can almost guarantee will always be that way,” Goetz said. “... That all went away. And that was the big push for what the heck is going on with these numbers.”
Goetz said his jail’s daily population should be in the 500s, based on historical trends. Instead, it’s in the low 400s — a relatively comfortable spot for a jail with a 557-inmate capacity. And it's been steady, Goetz said. For that, staff point to lower overall arrests and a change in how the county handles bonds.
In short, they release people awaiting trial based on their risk to the community, not based on whether the inmate can afford bail.
The new bond program is one year old this October. The jail has seen about a 10 percent increase in inmates being released on personal recognizance bonds; correspondingly, the population of inmates being held before trial has also dropped by about 10 percent, officials said.
Smith said Larimer County instituted a similar program in the early 2000s. He criticized bail bonds as outdated. Larimer County also employs programs like work release to help ease its jail population, though it faces problems like state Department of Corrections inmates being kept locally while waiting for space in the transitional program Community Corrections. The Eighth Judicial District, which includes Larimer and Jackson counties, has also faced a 30-percent jump in felony filings between 2015 and 2016. Felony cases tend to be the longest pre-sentenced holds in the jail.
Monica Rotner, division manager of Community Justice Services for Boulder County Community Services, said her division is watching the data carefully and treating the falling jail population as more correlation than causation, for now. Boulder County officials are quick to note that jail numbers can shift dramatically and quickly. If police bust up a drug ring, that could lead to dozens of inmates who need jailhouse beds, for example.
The personal recognizance program allows some inmates to be released without paying. To qualify, the inmate must be deemed a low-risk of committing a crime while free and the original charge cannot be a sex offense, multiple DUI or felony domestic violence charge.
Rotner argues it fits with the original purpose of jails. People on pre-trial holds generally haven’t been convicted of anything yet; they’re innocent in the eyes of the law.
“The reality is most people don’t show up for court because they forgot or it didn’t end up on their calendar,” Rotner said. “They just needed reminding.”
The system also isn't perfect, Rotner said, and neither are the clients. About 87 percent of people who qualify for a personal recognizance bond follow all conditions; the other 13 percent don't.
"I think we're all doing that work and we realize that work is what we should be doing," Rotner said of the risk analysis tools, before adding, "We are in the field of dealing with criminals; we should expect them to commit crimes."
She argues that there should be an acceptable amount of risk in society, especially when the cost is otherwise $117 a day for each inmate jailed in Boulder County. People who are jailed have much higher recidivism rates, even if they're jailed for only a day or two, Rotner said. And if they're behind bars for longer, it jeopardizes relationships, jobs and housing, adding stress and desperation to the mix.
It also doesn't take into account the risk that came with the old system, where the question wasn't if the inmate was a risk to commit new crimes, but rather if they could afford their bail.
The apparent success of the program doesn't lie on the shoulders of Goetz and Rotner alone, they said. It required buy-in — and a sharing of blame when things went awry — from the entire Boulder County criminal justice system, including judges and the district attorney's office.
"If one person puts their head in the sand, it screws it up for everyone else," Goetz said.
Even so, the Boulder County officials are warily watching the trend. Goetz and Rotner and others at the jail have been working in the field for a long time and both profess skepticism that this system can keep jail population under control.
“We’ve been doing this a long time," Goetz said. "And there is a pattern and that pattern is broken right now. For the good, for us. And when I say us, I mean the community, and the folks on that side of the wall right now … I just hope it doesn’t’ go back to what it was."