Most local jails are old and crowded

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Prisons – November 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Chaffee County’s old and crowded jail is hardly a unique problem.

Lake County Sheriff David Duarte runs a jail built with the Leadville courthouse in 1958. In 1995, he averaged 14.9 inmates per day; that rose to 20 in 1996, “and fourteen is overcrowding this jail.” He’s had to house inmates in Clear Creek County, and “we’ve got a committee looking into a new jail.”

Saguache County Undersheriff Mike Norris joked that “we’re still using the jail that Alfred Packer escaped from in 1873.” Seriously, he said it was built about the same time as Leadville’s, and female inmates usually stay at the Chaffee County Jail in Salida these days because there’s no room for them in Saguache.

Saguache voters have turned down a sales-tax increase to expand the jail, Norris said, “and we’re adding cells in the garage. But it’s not a good situation for us or them.”

Gunnison County’s 21-bed jail is newer, built in 1980, explained Anna McDow, its administrator. It averages 18 prisoners a day, so it’s crowded and getting worse, she said. “It should have been bigger in the first place,” she said, “and as growth continues, we’ll have to figure out something.”

It does have a good exercise yard, she noted, “but in Gunnison, you can only use it for about three months of the year. The rest of the time, it’s just too cold.”

Lest you think that all jails in Central Colorado are too old and too small, there’s Custer County, where a new 12-bed jail opened a year ago; before that, prisoners were hauled 50 miles from Westcliffe to the Frémont slammer in Cañon City.

Sheriff Fred Jobe says it has worked pretty well, and hasn’t cost much extra, since the county had been spending up to $60,000 a year to house prisoners in Frémont County. The new jail now holds 10 prisoners on an average day, but usually two or three of them are backlog state prisoners who could be sent elsewhere in a pinch, so Jobe says its capacity is adequate for quite a while.

And there’s Park County, with a 100-bed jail physically similar to that proposed for Chaffee County. It’s operated by a private company, CiviGenics, which took over from another private operator, Sentence Security.

The first operator “was horrible,” Sheriff Paul Ottmer said, with lawsuits and other problems, but “CiviGenics is a good outfit, and things are running smoothly.”

Park County gets 15 beds in the new jail, Ottmer said; CiviGenics contracts for prisoners to fill the rest, either from the state Department of Corrections or the U.S. Army stockade at Fort Carson.

Before the jail opened, Park County housed its prisoners in Georgetown at Clear Creek County’s jail. “Just going over for a prisoner, bringing him back, sitting through court with him, then taking him back, and coming back — that was an eleven- or twelve-hour day, and it generated a lot of overtime,” Ottmer said.

“When you’re hauling prisoners around,” he continued, “you’re not patrolling the county or serving papers or performing those other duties that people rightfully expect from the sheriff they elect.”

Ottmer is “extremely happy” with the new jail, although “it’s a sad commentary on this country that corrections is one of our biggest growth industries.”

So it’s not some peculiarity that has increased the jail burden in Chaffee County and made the current facility inadequate. It’s something that is happening all around here, and nationally, too.

In 1978, America’s city and county jails held 158,394 prisoners and were at 65% of capacity. They were at 108% of capacity in 1989 with 395,553 prisoners. The last numbers at hand (the 1996 Statistical Abstract of the United States) are from 1994, with 490,442 inmates at 97% of capacity.

Such numbers make it clear that almost every local jail in America is crowded.