On this Monday morning, Taser-packing Deputy Jane Pludowski alone guards 89 medium-, high- and maximum-security male inmates at the county's Criminal Justice Center.
Pludowski's charges, who landed in the CJC detention facility for everything from misdemeanors to murder, play chess, do pushups, shower and flex their muscles in the metal doorways.
When Sgt. Jeanette Whitney leads me through Pludowski's bustling ward, the inmates turn and stare.
Pludowski and Whitney seem oblivious to the fixated eyeballs. They giggle over inside jokes, slapping each other playfully on the back. They might as well have bumped into each other at the grocery store.
Glancing in my direction, Whitney stops short. She follows my wary eyes as I gaze at the scrub-wearing masses. Those masses, we both know, could easily take over the ward at any moment. And no one at the county jail carries a gun.
Whitney's expression turns suddenly sympathetic.
"Do you feel uncomfortable?" she asks.
El Paso County's jail is so overcrowded and understaffed that Pludowski and others will tell you they maintain order not through intimidation (which doesn't work so well when you're outnumbered 89-1), but by building a "rapport" with the inmates.
Pludowski's room has a capacity of about 95 inmates. It has maxed out before and undoubtedly will again.
Sheriff Terry Maketa says it's a problem throughout the jail, and has led to some "near-riot" situations recently.
"The volume of people coming in exceeds the volume of the people going out," he says.
During a recent week, the jail transferred 28 inmates to other counties' jails when it ran out of space. The CJC can fit about 1,590 inmates, but because some are deemed too violent to share a room, the jail ideally shouldn't exceed 80 percent capacity.
On Oct. 22, the jail was more than 94 percent full.
"We haven't been anywhere near 80 percent in a long time," says spokeswoman Lt. Lari Sevene.
And the jail is understaffed. In fact, the entire sheriff's department is understaffed. Recent studies by the National Sheriffs' Association and the National Institute of Corrections show the El Paso County Sheriff's Department should have at least another 60 patrol and jail deputies.
Pueblo County, for example, has 124.5 deputies per 100,000 residents, compared to El Paso County's 40.5. No additional patrol deputies have been funded since 1990, a time period in which calls for service have increased 137 percent.
Maketa recorded the jail-specific woes in a recent paper titled, "The Jails Are Full: Causes and Future Implications." In it, he explains why the jail is under so much stress. Reasons include:
more arrests, especially for "new crimes," like those associated with methamphetamine;
an overstressed judicial system, forcing arrestees to wait longer in jail for trials;
greater use of parole, meaning more parole violators;
a wait for some of those sentenced to actually get into prisons;
high recidivism rates among inmates serving for misdemeanor charges and with mental-health issues;
undocumented immigrants routinely being held in jails before deportation;
a law allowing inmates sentenced to two years or less to stay in county jail.
Living with the tent
The most obvious sign of overcrowding at the jail is the tent next to it. The white-peaked structure looks like a miniature Denver International Airport, though much less plush on the inside.
This is home for the county's work-release inmates, who pay for the heated structure and amenities (including flat-screen TVs). They sleep in bunks with a white curtain separating men from women. There are a few trailers with bathrooms outside.
"Tents aren't common because they do come with a lot of challenges, especially in Colorado," Maketa admits.
Take, for instance, freezing pipes or violent thunderstorms.
Still, Maketa says, there's a "good chance" the tent will stay operational through winter. In fact, the tent will probably be in use until spring, when the old downtown Metro jail reopens, specifically for work-release inmates.
Which brings us to a much older issue.
When Metro was built in 1973, it could house around 300 inmates. At completion, it was already outdated, using some security technology designed in the 1930s. By the early 1980s, Metro was overcrowded. So the CJC was built.
Then the CJC became overcrowded, necessitating expansion. By 2005 the year the CJC's new minimum-security tower opened Metro closed, largely for safety reasons.
When it reopens soon, it will be fit to take in about 350 work-release prisoners from the tent, but will do nothing to ease crowding inside the CJC.
That means Maketa will have to keep being creative, as he has been lately. He's transferred inmates to other counties or asked the city to keep arrestees in holding cells longer. Low-level offenders who might have been jailed in the past are often served a summons and released.
Maketa has implemented recidivism-reducing classes normally reserved for prisons. And the jail has a mental-health program that continues to offer treatment to inmates after they're released, which hopefully will slow the jail's revolving door.
The sheriff hasn't given up hope he'll get more CJC space. In 2006, the county spent $770,000 for the design of the CJC's proposed 480-bed, maximum-security tower addition.
But the county doesn't have the approximately $40 million it will take to build the tower, let alone nearly $8 million it will cost annually to staff and run it.
Commissioner Sallie Clark says the county may ask voters in 2008 for money to fund the tower. But she's not sure they'll approve it.
Voters, after all, turned down expansion plans in both 1995 and 2002, forcing the county to use certificates of participation to help fund the 2005 expansion.
When the public thinks crime prevention, it thinks cops, not jails, Clark says.
"While we don't have any sympathy for those who break the law," Clark adds, "we need to understand that to keep them off the street, we have to have a place to put them."