As El Paso County commissioners decided to close the problem-plagued downtown jail two weeks ago, they leave a legacy that is certain to cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
The county has two jails -- the Criminal Justice Center and Metro jail downtown -- and as a result of overcrowding, both are holding roughly twice as many prisoners as they were originally built to accommodate. Tough criminal sentences, strict judges and a backlog of inmates waiting to be transferred to state prisons are all contributing to the crisis, said county Sheriff Terry Maketa.
The stunning development comes just two years after the county approved an addition to the Criminal Justice Center, but did not notify taxpayers of the dire condition of Metro jail, which houses the county's maximum security prisoners.
The Metro jail, at 205 S. Cascade Ave., will close by June 30, and the 350 inmates there will be transferred to the Criminal Justice Center southeast of downtown. The decision came quickly at a Nov. 22 County Commission meeting, shortly after the Sheriff's Office received a staggering report by Robert Glass and Associates Inc. of Spokane, Wash. The consultant said the 31-year-old jail was built using designs from the 1930s -- similar to the famed Alcatraz prison -- and only a handful of that type remain open in the country.
Because it is a fire hazard, the consultant advised the facility be closed or significantly upgraded immediately. The jail doesn't have fire sprinklers, smoke detectors or a proper system to prevent smoke from spreading, according to the report. Moreover, door locks can malfunction, posing a safety risk because they could become stuck during an emergency.
"For the most part I cannot dispute any of the findings," Maketa told county commissioners.
Even a "small campfire" could create enough smoke to suffocate prisoners, Maketa said. County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, joining a unanimous vote to close the jail, hoped to "avoid a very serious, potential disaster."
Could be liable
Other counties have seen such disasters, including Mitchell County, N.C., where a county jail fire in May of 2000 killed eight inmates and injured several others. The resulting ongoing lawsuit there could bleed the county's treasury dry, said David Fathi, staff attorney for the National Prison Project, a Washington D.C.-based arm of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He praised Maketa and the county for taking quick action to shut down Metro, but warned that if an inmate or deputy dies as a result of conditions pointed out by the consultant, the county could be liable for "tens of millions of dollars" in damages. Technically, the county is vulnerable to a lawsuit over conditions now, Fathi added.
"The courts have specifically said prisoners don't have to wait until a deadly fire breaks out before getting relief from conditions that pose a risk of death," he said.
More fire extinguishers
Commissioners would have had to spend at least $7.5 million to temporarily fix Metro's problems, but decided against repairs because they would not have been enough to re-accredit the jail. In the interim, Maketa says he plans to assign a deputy to conduct safety patrols, removing hazards such as extra paper. Also, additional fire extinguishers and breathing equipment will be added to the jail in case of an emergency.
Maketa said the county should build a new 192-cell, maximum security jail, which would cost more than $17 million. Twice in the last decade, El Paso County voters shot down measures to increase taxes and county borrowing to pay for a new jail.
Commissioners could have bypassed voters by issuing "certificates of participation," or loans to pay for improvements or even to build a new jail. But commissioners, who issued $69.6 million in such certificates to expand the county's minimum-to-medium security Criminal Justice Center, opted against it.
"I didn't believe the political will was either here or there," said County Administrator Terry Harris.
Commissioners instead cut into several budgets, including $300,000 in Sheriff's Office money, in order to spend $1.164 million to bring new deputies and staff and additional security measures to handle maximum security prisoners at the Criminal Justice Center.
That jail was originally designed to hold 384 prisoners, but in 1994 was double bunked to fit 735 beds amid severe overcrowding. Last year, construction on a new tower began, which will add 864 beds for a total of 1,599 beds in time for the arrival of the unexpected influx of Metro inmates.
That should leave several hundred beds open. But Maketa said that within 10 years the jail could be packed and more beds would be needed.
Protecting inmates and deputies
One challenge that jailers will face with the arrangement is in making sure that maximum security inmates are separated from other parts of the population -- especially from each other. Gang members, co-defendants and inmates who are aggressive toward other inmates need to be separated to protect inmates and deputies, Maketa said.
The jail will also house more inmates with mental problems. Following a rash of deaths at the county jails, including suicides starting in 1998, the ACLU in April 2002 filed an ongoing class action lawsuit alleging that inmates with mental health issues were severely mistreated.
Fathi said the jail would have to be careful to ensure such inmates are cared for and that antagonistic inmates are separated.
"It just leads to a whole kaleidoscope of dangerous and unhealthy conditions," he said.
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