- Photo by Michael de Yoanna
- Inmates play cards Monday at the oft-buzzing El Paso County Criminal Justice Center.
Inside maximum-security Ward 1C1, inmates clamor around deputies with a long and repetitious list of issues.
A parole violator wants to know if he's going to be released. Another grouses about the food. One has a question, but can't get any immediate attention.
"This is what it is like every day," explains Sheriff's Office Cmdr. Paula Presley, taking an Independent reporter through a steel door inside El Paso County's Criminal Justice Center, the largest jail in the region. "It doesn't stop."
A painted yellow line on the floor is all that separates 1C1's two guards from 88 inmates. The ward, a few inmates shy of full, hints at the crowding problem that may emerge in any ward on any given day at the 1,599-bed jail.
Fearing overcrowding, Sheriff Terry Maketa last month told law enforcement agencies not to bring suspects accused of nonviolent misdemeanors, such as shoplifting, to jail. Instead, those offenders will receive tickets and be required to show up in court on their own.
The move was necessary to guarantee the safety of both inmates and guards, Presley says. It also forestalls a full-jail scenario in which judges, prosecutors and the sheriff could be forced to approve emergency early releases of lesser offenders to make way for violent suspects.
"The concern has been safety," Presley says.
No money to expand
County Commission Chairwoman Sallie Clark dislikes the idea of limited space for criminal suspects.
"It sends a bad message crime-wise: Commit a misdemeanor and we won't be able to put you in jail," she says.
Colorado Springs police, who rely on the county jail, have long been cautious about taking nonviolent suspects to the jail because of the limited space, says Lt. Rafael Cintron, a police spokesman. Maketa's action was "not really a major departure from how we do business," he says, adding that any suspect identified as a threat to the public still will be arrested and booked.
Meanwhile, Clark supports the addition of a new, $36 million, maximum-security wing at the jail, located just southeast of downtown. Yet the expansion has been unworkable for years because the county doesn't have the money.
"We're looking at putting the expansion on the ballot, but we missed the deadline, so we can't do anything until 2007," Clark says.
Even if voters are supportive next year, it could easily be the end of the decade before another wing is completed.
Meanwhile, Presley says, the county doesn't have the funds to send inmates to other jails. And, she adds, "Even if we did have the funds, the other jails are full, too."
As such, this week the county's Justice Advisory Council, which advises government officials, is looking at an early-release contingency plan, says Henry Sontheimer, the county's chief criminal-justice analyst. "We need to have something ready on the shelf if we hit maximum capacity," he says.
Early releases, which would require a judge's approval, would not be considered for violent inmates, parole violators, inmates awaiting cells in crowded state prisons, or immigration holds, he says.
Gilbert A. Martinez, chief judge of the 4th Judicial District, which includes the county, declined to comment for this story, saying the matter could arise in court.
Climbing prison population
Si Kahn, executive director of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit critical of growing prison populations, says the county's situation is not unique.
"Crime has been falling steadily around the country in recent years, but the prison population has dramatically climbed," he says. "That has a spillover effect in jails."
Driving the rising prison population are longer sentences, including those for nonviolent drug crimes, and, often, a lack of alternatives to incarceration.
"There's also the diminishing faith that people who get in trouble can straighten out and turn their lives around," he says.
Jack Ruszczyk, chief probation officer for the 4th Judicial District, says more local dollars are needed for rehabilitation and monitoring.
"I've been in the probation system a little over 30 years, and we have never been fully funded and fully staffed to manage the volume of offenders that we're chasing," he says.
His office, he adds, has just 70 to 75 percent of the funds it needs to properly manage the number of offenders. Programs, such as inpatient care for serious drug addicts, are limited.
Meanwhile, a $6.5 million shortfall in the county budget has county commissioners considering the elimination of a $1 million program that allows inmates to keep jobs and serve nights in lock-up.
"It's a helpful program, but we're really in a difficult position," Clark says. "We're faced with hard choices."
The 165 inmates in the work-release program are housed in a separate jail in Colorado Springs run by ComCor, contracted by the county. If the program is canceled, the inmates could lose their jobs and be turned over to the county jail to complete their sentences.
The budget shortfall has also dashed Presley's hopes of increasing deputies.
"We are crowded, and we have surpassed managerial capacity," Presley says.
Inmates with court problems clog jail
One reason the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center is nearing capacity is that over two years, the number of people imprisoned for failing to appear in court, comply with a court order, or pay fines has increased by 204 percent. There are numerous reasons for this, including offenders' lack of money.
January-August 2004: 1,978 inmates
January-August 2005: 5,867 inmates
January-August 2006: 6,013 inmates
Source: El Paso County Sheriff's Office
"Jails are full! Now what?": A community conversation featuring Sheriff Terry Maketa, author Si Kahn and others
Victory Outreach Ministries, 2475 E. Pikes Peak Ave.
Tuesday, Sept. 26, 5:30-9 p.m.
Free, with donations accepted.