Can anyone escape from a 100-bed jail?

Article by Ed Quillen

Prisons – November 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

In this election in Chaffee County, we get to decide about building a new jail.

For starters, there’s little argument that the county needs one. The current slammer, in the bowels of the west wing of the courthouse, was built thirty years ago to accommodate a dozen prisoners. Now it often holds twice that many, or more.

Its kitchen, though clean, uses household equipment, not commercial-grade restaurant dishwashers and the like. Its halls are dark dead ends, invisible to the turnkey, and thus a risk to jail personnel — or inmates, for that matter.

There are people who admire lawmen like Joseph Arpaio in Arizona, who brags on being “the toughest sheriff in America” as he houses inmates in tents and feeds them bologna sandwiches.

But Chaffee County Sheriff Ron Bergmann doesn’t belong to any Arpaio Fan Club. “Jail is punishment enough,” he says. “We shouldn’t make it any harsher than necessary.”

A visit to the jail, and talks with people who’ve stayed there, confirmed that Bergmann runs a decent shop — reasonable rules enforced fairly.

That it’s smoke-free bothers some fellow tobacco addicts, but the sheriff does provide nicotine gum, and I note that one non-smoking friend who spent 90 days in the pre-smoke-free slammer said the fumes were the worst part of it.

But Bergmann does make jail more costly than necessary — for the prisoner. State law allows (but does not require) sheriffs to charge convicted inmates for the costs of their custody.

Bergmann charges, on a sliding scale from $5 to $30 a day, based on the inmate’s income. “We don’t want to be taking food from any family’s table,” he says, “but it’s not fair to you, the taxpayer, to be paying for what it costs to keep these people in custody.”

By state law, a county must provide a jail, and the sheriff is responsible for it.

County jails typically house prisoners whose sentence is less than a year; longer terms are served in the state correctional system. Cities and towns can operate jails, too, but aren’t required to; thus Salida and Buena Vista pay the county to house the inmate if their municipal courts send someone to jail.

Not everyone in jail is a convict — there are inmates just waiting for trial, or waiting for someone to post bond to guarantee they will appear for trial.

So jail isn’t just something that happens to other people. I’ve visited friends and neighbors there. If you got arrested (you’re innocent until proven guilty, of course, but all it takes is probable cause for you to get fingerprinted, handcuffed, and the Miranda recitation about your rights), you’d be in the slam until you could post bond. It’s not in anybody’s interest to have a crowded, antiquated jail. Some such jails have been closed by federal courts, on the grounds that they violate the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” That hasn’t happened here yet, but the jail has come to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has brought such lawsuits elsewhere on behalf of prisoners.

To say that the current jail is inadequate, though, is not the same as saying that the county needs a new 100-bed jail.

The first question: Why is the jail so crowded? If a dozen beds were enough in 1968, when Chaffee County had 10,000 people, why do we need 100 beds now, when the population is 15,000 people? In other words, why do we need to build 833% more jail when we’ve got only 50% more population?

Both enforcement and sentences have changed, Bergmann explains. Thirty years ago, and for many years thereafter, when deputies were called to a domestic dispute, the aggrieved partner would often decide to drop charges and the deputies went on their way.

That doesn’t happen now. “Almost always, one or both parties in a domestic dispute will be arrested and brought to jail, even if it’s just for the night,” Bergmann said.

He moves on. “Do you remember the days when you might be weaving as you drove home from a party, and you got pulled over, and the cop just gave you a ride home if he knew you?” Bergmann asks me.

Somewhat embarrassed, I nod. “That doesn’t happen any more. If you’re driving erratically and you get pulled over and there’s alcohol on your breath, you’ll get a ride all right — to get booked into jail.”

So you post bond in the morning and you’re out of jail, but then you go to court before County Judge Bill Alderton.

“Society has really cracked down on drunken driving,” he says. “There’s a five-day minimum sentence that I can’t suspend, even if I think you’re a prince of a fellow who just made a mistake.”

Tougher drunken-driving laws are just one facet of longer sentences in general, Alderton said. Candidates win office by promising longer sentences along with “truth in sentencing” laws which reduce a judge’s discretion.

The result, even if crime per se doesn’t increase, is more people in jail for longer sentences. Perhaps it works — the crime rate has been dropping.

Add a growing population to that, and more police calls because it’s so easy to dial 911. Alderton noted that county court cases have soared lately. In 1995 and many previous years, the county court handled about 2,000 cases per year. In 1996, it was 3,200 cases, and 1997 is on track for 3,400 cases.

All this fills jails, and not just in Chaffee County [as detailed in see the sidebar on page 24].The causes are mostly political, and should be faced in that arena (the Zero Tolerance politician who wants ten-year sentences for every kid with a bag of pot is really trying to increase your taxes, and not much else, but such knaves frequently gain office — even when they admit they committed such offenses during their salad days).

However, we’re not voting this fall on whether short-sighted hypocrites should make laws, but on dealing with the results of laws they’ve already enacted.

So I’m in agreement that we need a new county jail. I do not like all the reasons that we need one, but the fact remains that we need it.

But there’s more to this proposal than that.

Judging by what I read in the local paper, the Chaffee County Jail Advisory Committee ran into the most difficulty with the site. The ideal site is the courthouse, so that prisoners are near the sheriff’s office (he is their legal custodian) and the courtrooms (where they attend trials, hearings, etc.)

The Chaffee County Courthouse complex is partly on fill dirt, not all that solid — Bergmann showed me cracks in the building, caused by its settling. And the land is pretty well covered with buildings now.

Any other site would perturb somebody because the “Not in My Back Yard” syndrome goes into high fever with jails. People want the alleged benefits of jails — the punishment of criminals and the keeping them off the street — but they don’t want a jail across the street.

So naturally my suggested site — the vacant 4.3-acre triangle next to the golf course near the big houses on Poncha Boulevard — was never a contender, even though it’s already public property and quite convenient to the courthouse.

The one they came up with, behind J.C. Trucking on Oak Street, is likely as good as any. If you’re going to have a jail, it’s got to be somewhere.

This jail won’t be surrounded by bright floodlights and triple tiers of razor-wire-topped chain-link fence. It will be a rather nondescript two-story structure, and the sign would be the only easy way to tell it’s a jail. So, as neighbor buildings go, it shouldn’t be that hard to adapt to.

According to the Jail Advisory Committee, the new jail will cost no more than $4 million to construct, and will cost $1 million to $1.3 million a year to operate, way more than the current $300,000.

But up to $1.1 million of that, they say, could come from housing inmates from the state or other counties, plus there’s the charges local inmates pay, which should amount to about $66,000 this year.

So it might operate on a break-even basis or better, if all goes as planned, and capital costs ($350,000 a year over 20 years) should be covered by the use tax generating $374,000 each year.

On the face of it, this sounds excellent — the county gets a new and improved jail, which it sorely needs, at little if any additional cost to most county taxpayers, and there’s no property or general sales tax increase.

The jail would not only be cleaner and safer, but it would have better recreational and educational facilities — and remember, jail isn’t something that happens only to other people these days.

But even if it’s a decent building on the right site, is it the right size? Does Chaffee County need a 100-bed jail?

Note that jail capacity isn’t a precise number. Because prisoners are segregated by sex, for medical reasons and discipline, etc., “you’d have to have precisely the perfect mix to use a 100-bed jail at capacity,” Bergmann points out, so “a 100-bed jail is usually full with 85 to 88 prisoners.”

Chaffee County doesn’t need anywhere near 100 beds now. But the jail advocates say that we will need about 100 beds by 2020, and until we need those beds, we can house prisoners for the state.

I’m dubious about the first claim. Go back to 1968, when the current 12-bed jail was built, and on an average day there were seven prisoners. The county’s population has grown from 10,000 then to 15,000 now, while the average daily jail population has grown to 21.6.

The Jail Committee says we’ll need room for 88 daily prisoners — about a 100-bed jail — in just 22 years. To believe that, you’ve got to believe one of these things:

1) That the county population will quadruple from 15,000 to 60,000 between now and 2020, since the jail population will quadruple in the same time period. That’s an annual growth rate of 6.5%.

In 1990-96, when growth seemed to be happening real fast, the county went from 12,684 to 14,672 residents — a 2.3% annual growth rate. Is the county’s growth rate going to triple? I’ll give the Realtors credit for trying, but I don’t think they’ll be able to pull this off.

2) That crime, sentencing patterns, etc., will cause the jail population to quadruple. We went from about seven inmates in 1968 to 22 in 1997 — essentially, the jail population tripled in 30 years, but it’s going to quadruple in just 22 years? Doesn’t sound likely, either.

3) That a combination of population growth and crime growth will create a need for at least 88 jail beds by 2020. The county population has been growing at 2.3% annually. The county incarceration rate — prisoners in jail per 100,000 residents — has gone from 70 to 147 in 29 years, for an annual increase of 2.6%.

Combine those increases, and you get an annual inmate growth rate of 4.95% from the current 21.7 county inmates. That works out to 63 inmates per day in 2020. According to the Jail Committee, though, “By the year 2020, Chaffee County is expected to need space for 87 inmates a day.”

So I’m real curious as to where they found their numbers.

Besides, there’s only so far that you can extrapolate. If the incarceration rate grows faster than the population grows for an extended period — about 86 years if we use national figures — then everybody would be in jail, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.

But the Jail Committee says we don’t need to worry about generating enough local convicts. We can always contract with the state to handle some of its excess prison population, and that’s good business, since the state pays about $50 a day, and it costs us only $30 a day to house an inmate.

The Jail Committee states that “At this time, there is a shortage of 2,500 beds in the state prison system. While we’re paying for our new jail and have extra space in it, state inmates waiting to go to the Department of Corrections can be housed here.”

Well, as Yogi Berra didn’t say, that’s true, but it ain’t right.

Colorado is short on prison space, and does house about 1,800 inmates in Texas and Minnesota. But those aren’t the prisoners that the state keeps in county jails.

This was explained to me by Ben Griego, director of inmate services for the Colorado Department of Corrections. If everything worked the way it’s supposed to, a felon would be sentenced by the local district judge, then transported immediately to the system’s diagnostic unit.

There, Corrections would examine the convict and decide whether he should be in minimum, medium, or maximum security, what sort of medical care should be available, whether the prisoner, and presumably society, would benefit from classes, that sort of thing. And then the prisoner would serve his sentence accordingly.

But things don’t work that way. On any given day, 350 to 1,000 prisoners have been sentenced to Corrections, but haven’t gone through diagnostics. They’re the “backlog,” and they’re the prisoners that counties can contract to house, as Park, Teller, and El Paso counties do now. So it’s not 2,500 prisoners available for county jails, but more like 500.

There’s no guarantee, Griego said, that Chaffee County would get any of them, although it was highly likely, providing the jail met state standards and that the backlog remained.

“It’s been that way, at least 350 prisoners, for the past fifteen years,” he said, “and so I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon.” Backlog prisoners don’t stay long, usually no more than a month or two, he said, “since county jails don’t offer much in the way of educational or recreational facilities you need for people serving long sentences.”

Griego said he didn’t remember any serious discipline, escape, or other problems with backlog prisoners in county jails. “It’s worked pretty well in that regard,” he said. Often backlog prisoners spend time in a county jail awaiting trial; then after they’re convicted, they go back to the same cell for a few weeks until state corrections can take them.

But all backlog prisoners, Griego said, “are treated as maximum-security, since we don’t know what they will turn out to be. And thus any facility we house them in must meet maximum-security standards.”

To me, that changed the question from “Do we need a new county jail?” to “Do we want a maximum-security prison facility in town?”

Judge Alderton agreed. “Given that they plan to house prisoners for the state in order to pay for operating the new jail, that’s something the community has to decide — do you want what is essentially a high-security penitentiary in town?”

Usually the most violent types, like some hard-case sentenced for his third armed robbery, go right to the head of the diagnostics line, Bergmann said. And a sheriff can turn down backlog prisoners offered by the state, he noted.

“That’s true,” Griego agreed. “But we might not have another prisoner for the sheriff, and if he’s relying on that $50 a day to keep his jail running, the sheriff can face some tough decisions.”

So, I don’t like the idea of building a 100-bed jail with the idea of housing state convicts until we need all the beds.

We’re betting there will be a constant supply of felons, and if that falls short, what’s to stop the sheriff from launching a crackdown on something every month, to make sure he has enough locals paying $30 a day to cover the costs of his overbuilt jail?

Okay, that’s far-fetched. Sheriffs are elected, and voters do care about things other than covering jail operating costs, and the judge would have to be in on it. It could happen, but it’s not likely.

So why not a 50-bed jail, which seems more than adequate for now and at least the next dozen years? Perhaps the common facilities, like kitchen and laundry, could be sized for easy expansion later.

“We looked at that,” Bergmann said. “But it wouldn’t have saved much money at the start, and expansion wouldn’t be that simple — you’d have to house the prisoners somewhere else during construction, which would be expensive. We didn’t want to have to go back to ask the voters for more money for expansion in just a few years, either.”

So the jail committee decided to go with a 100-bed facility. To avoid raising property taxes, they propose a use tax on automobiles and building materials bought outside the county.

A use tax functions like a sales tax, and looks somewhat fair, although it might not work as planned [as explained in the sidebar on page 28].

But even though I hate paying taxes as much as the next guy, and the jail is set up to minimize my tax expenditures, I don’t like this arrangement.

As James Madison, fourth president of the United States and principal author of the Constitution, famously observed, “if men were angels, there would be no need of government.”

We aren’t angels, so we do need jails. And I want our jail to be as safe and healthy a place as possible at reasonable expense — I’ll believe that prisoners are coddled on the day that people start trying to break into jails, rather than out of them.

However, if we as a community want jails, then we as a community should pay for them. They are our institutions, and our responsibility. To say “oh, the state will cover most of the cost,” or “just the people building new houses or buying new cars from city dealers will pay” is to duck that responsibility.

I wish the jail committee had proposed a 50-bed jail financed by general county tax revenues. I’d have no problem supporting that. The facility would be a sensible size, and we’d be facing our responsibilities squarely.

But instead, they’ve offered us a maximum-security facility financed in peculiar ways. So, much as I agree that Ron Bergmann needs a new jail, this isn’t the new jail we need.

I asked the sheriff what would happen if this one doesn’t pass, and he said “We’ll go back to the drawing board, and then back to the voters, until we get something.”

Well, they should go back to the drawing board, and come up with a 50-bed facility financed in a straightforward way. And when they do, I’ll vote for it.

Waiting does seem to work. I can’t remember how many times I’ve voted against a new middle school here, since the plans were vague and the site too remote for children to walk to. This time around, the school board seems to have figured it out — we’ve got plans to examine, and the site is convenient. So I’ll vote for a new school this time.

It may take an election or two before we get the right jail on the ballot, but it can happen. This one isn’t the right jail for Chaffee County.

— Ed Quillen