Jailhouse Blues 

Ballot measures ask for tax hikes to expand, operate jail

A visit to the El Paso County Jail leaves little doubt that the facility is overcrowded. Many inmates sleep in coffin-like "sled beds" on the floors of the wards, because the double-bunked cells are full.

Though the official maximum capacity of the county's two lockups -- the main jail on East Last Vegas Street and the Metro Detention Center downtown -- totals 1,041 inmates, they housed an average total of 1,079 inmates each day during the first half of 2002. In July, the population exceeded 1,200, prompting the early release of dozens of inmates.

On Tuesday, the Board of El Paso County Commissioners will ask voters for approval to borrow $38 million for an 800-bed expansion of the main jail, with a repayment cost of $76 million over 25 years. They will also ask for an annual tax increase of $2.9 million to pay for a portion, but not all, of the increased operation costs.

The proposals, appearing on the ballot as Questions 1A and 1B, would cost the average county taxpayer about $15 per year.

Proponents say the measures are critical to ensure that criminals are safely locked up.

"We are truly in a crisis right now," said Commander Tim Shull of the Sheriff's Department, who is in charge of expansion plans.

Critics, meanwhile, question whether continuing to build bigger jails will solve any problems in the long term, instead suggesting it may be time to reform the justice system so that fewer people end up behind bars. Others argue that the proposal asks too much of taxpayers or that it may do little to address safety problems that have contributed to the deaths of numerous inmates.

Not a good situation

Opened in 1988, the current jail was supposed to handle the county's needs for 15 years. However, it was full after just five years, causing jail officials to "double-bunk" inmates by putting two beds in each cell. In 1995, voters overwhelmingly rejected a $22-million proposal to expand the jail.

The new expansion proposal has the backing of local governments and the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber's government-affairs director, Jeff Crank, also heads El Paso County Citizens for Public Safety, a group formed to support the ballot measures.

Releasing inmates early "is not a good situation," Crank said. The county needs to keep faith with crime victims, who expect that offenders will serve their time, he argues.

Sheriff John Anderson, who is leaving office due to term limits, says without the expansion, he's "absolutely confident" the jail will lose its accreditation by the American Correctional Association, which sets standards for jail operations. Without accreditation, the county will be even more vulnerable to lawsuits, he says.

The county has been sued numerous times over inmate deaths -- 10 inmates have died in the jail in the past four years -- and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees and settlements. And a class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, alleging that the jail has failed to protect mentally ill inmates, is pending in a federal court.

49th in the nation

But Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, questions whether simply expanding the jail will address the problem of inmates dying -- which he attributes to insufficient training of deputies and scarce mental-health resources.

"Just building more room does not get you better-trained deputies [and] does not get you more mental-health staff," Silverstein said. "In a few years, you're going to have twice as many people locked up in a facility that has the same problems."

Stephen Raher of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition advocates expanding alternatives to jail, such as restorative-justice programs or electronic monitoring. Prevention programs also need more funding, Raher says.

"Colorado is now 49th in the nation for funding substance-abuse treatment," he noted. People with substance-abuse problems are "a huge part of the prison population."

Need to be in jail

Jail officials say alternatives are already being used but have their limitations. Though the number of inmates on electronic monitoring has been in the single digits, Sheriff Anderson says he doubts the number could be expanded, claiming that high recidivism rates make the method "less than effective."

"The people who are in jail need to be in jail," Anderson maintained.

He says El Paso County isn't incarcerating disproportionately many people, arguing that the growth in inmate population has simply mirrored the growth of the county's general population. In reality, however, the county's incarceration rate doubled between 1987 and 2001.

Still, El Paso County's crime and incarceration rates are about average for the Front Range.

In the end, Anderson agrees with critics that justice reforms may be needed. The jail houses several types of inmates who Anderson says belong in other facilities -- such as juvenile offenders and the mentally ill.

"Those people shouldn't be in a county jail, but they're there," he said.

Criminal-justice reform, however, is a matter for the state Legislature, Anderson argued. The county's responsibility, he said, is to "have the ability and the capacity to incarcerate violators of the law."


Adam Krefting contributed to this report


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