Public Eye 

Enough is enough. Since 1998, nine inmates have died while incarcerated in El Paso County jails.

Not four, as was initially reported by The Gazette and The Denver Post; not seven, as was cited by the TV stations, the Rocky Mountain News and the American Civil Liberties Union, but nine. (It should be noted that the El Paso County Sheriff's Office has not made an effort to correct the erroneous lower number.) The dead include:

Michael Lewis, 54, died on May 7, 1998, shortly after he had been strapped immobile on a full-body restraint board. This year, taxpayers gave Lewis' family $116,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Michael Feller, 51, died on Sept. 28, 1998. His identified cause of death: cardiac arrhythmia and coronary arterial sclerosis.

Ocie Lewis Meadows, 39, found dead on his bunk bed on Feb. 28, 1999. The coroner listed the cause of death as heart failure.

Willie McLemore, 71, died on May 25, 1999. Cause of death was listed as congestive heart failure.

Andrew Spillane, 30, died on May 10, 2000 after suffering seizures related to alcohol withdrawal. (He was also pepper-sprayed twice in his cell by jailers.) His family's lawsuit has not yet gone to trial.

James Estes, 52, died on Feb. 1, 2001, after falling out of his bunk bed. Estes had been transferred from the Pueblo Mental Hospital and was awaiting a court date in Colorado Springs when he died, officially of heart disease.

Donald Wallace, 42, died on March 21, 2001. Just admitted to the jail, he had a fatal amount of cocaine in him and he died after a series of seizures.

Stephen John Phelps, 19, died on March 27, 2001, when he strangled himself with a bedsheet. His family has filed a notice of intent to sue the county.

Brian Richard Bennett, 22, died on Saturday, Nov. 3. He was taken to Memorial Hospital after jailers said he tried to hang himself with a bedsheet.

A quick telephone inquiry this week shows the death toll -- four so far this year alone -- is much higher than that of other similarly sized jails in Colorado. Arapahoe County has had two deaths since 1998, both suicides. Jefferson County has had four inmate deaths since 1998 -- two suicides, a heart attack and an accidental death.

Which begs the question: Does the staff at El Paso County's jails have the necessary training and staffing to deal adequately with medical and mental health situations at its two detention facilities, which house, on average, more than 1,000 inmates a day?

Of course, the more hardened among us may shrug off all those dead. After all, the guys were criminals and if they die, they die. But in truth, we will never know if they were criminals. At least seven of these nine men had been arrested, but they hadn't been convicted of any crime. And, at least seven of them were psychotic, suicidal, seriously mentally ill, or were overdosing or withdrawing from street drugs or alcohol when they died. They deserved their day in court or in treatment, not their day at the morgue.

Imagine, for a moment, that one of these men was your brother, your boyfriend, your dad. Picture your disappointment finding out that they had been jailed. But then, imagine the inconceivable -- learning that not only are they jailed, but dead.

This week Sheriff John Anderson, who is reportedly already applying for jobs elsewhere in anticipation of his being term-limited from office next year, was out of town and unavailable for comment. As of press time, the Board of County Commissioners had not indicated whether they plan to review policies and staffing issues at the county's jails -- or will prefer continuing to shell out taxpayer dollars on litigation settlements.


Doesn't he ever learn? Colorado Gov. Bill Owens seized the spotlight last week to denounce Fremont County's District Attorney Ed Rodgers' plea bargain deal in the case of Michael and Joel Stovall, who were sentenced to life in jail for killing Fremont County Deputy Sheriff Jason Schwartz. Owens issued a statement saying that he was "very disappointed" by Rodgers' decision, and that "the facts clearly indicate that the death penalty is appropriate in this situation."

This isn't the first time that Owens has weighed in on a murder case. It seems it was only yesterday when the governor -- a former state treasurer, legislator and oil executive but never a cop or a prosecutor -- was getting raked over the coals when he announced to a national audience that JonBenet Ramsey's mother was clearly responsible for JonBenet's death. That case, of course, has never been solved.

And speaking of Owens and unsolved crimes, check out the picture and article about the ganja at the governor's pad -- which initially appeared in this column on Aug. 16 -- in this month's High Times.


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