It looks like a wedding tent, or perhaps a circus tent without the stripes.
To Sheriff Terry Maketa, the big white tent looks like an almost-immediate way to avoid jail crowding.
"I'm kind of running out of options," Maketa told El Paso County commissioners late last week, showing them a photo of a tent whose multiple peaks also call to mind Denver International Airport.
His idea, which could be implemented within six weeks, comes at a time when the county's 1,599-bed Criminal Justice Center hovers near capacity, particularly on weekends. If he could put minimum-security prisoners in a tent, Maketa says, they'd be less likely to be released early or turned away.
The tent, which Maketa says would cost about $100,000 to purchase, would stand in a parking lot near the 2739 E. Las Vegas St. justice center, surrounded by a chain-link fence, until the downtown Metro jail is reopened. Closed because of safety problems in 2005, Metro "hopefully" will be ready to house about 375 work/release inmates in six to nine months, Maketa says.
Yet he can't say exactly when Metro will open, noting that contractors have yet to be secured.
Inside the tent, deputies would guard 150 to 180 minimum-security prisoners, such as part-time inmates who serve their sentences on weekends, Maketa says. They'd have open-area bunks and common toilets. The tent would have a floor and heating.
The justice center is responsible for providing adequate shelter, clothing, food, sanitary conditions and more to assure inmates' welfare, according to Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
"They, of course, still have those obligations" if inmates are held in a tent, he says, adding that the ACLU would be prone to take a closer look at the arrangement should complaints arise.
Maketa anticipates asking commissioners for about $50,000 to get the plan off the ground. The rest would come from his department. Maketa is leaning toward buying a tent because he says it would cost roughly $300,000 a year to rent and operate a tent.
Inmate fees from the county's soon-to-be-reinstated work/release program could defray the $5,000 needed every month to run the tent.
The plan garnered no criticisms from commissioners and even won Maketa praise from Douglas Bruce, the self-described "tightwad on the board."
Recent weeks have highlighted ongoing concern that on any given day, any ward at the jail could become full. In an effort to ensure beds are available for serious offenders, Maketa several months ago told police throughout the Pikes Peak region not to bring low-level offenders to the jail, but to give them a ticket and court date instead.
Given the crunch, Maketa says he can't commit to removing the tent as soon as Metro is completed.
"It's something I'd have to re-evaluate," Maketa says.
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