Columns » Public Eye

Under the Big Top


Hey, if it's good enough for the so-called Meanest Sheriff in the Land, it's got to be good enough for El Paso County.

We're talking, of course, about Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, whose tent jails are the stuff of legend. When he was in town last year stumping for former Sheriff John Anderson, who was running for U.S. Congress, Arpaio bragged that he spends more money feeding dogs in an air-conditioned shelter than on the 1,600 inmates whom he warehouses in sweltering desert tents. (It was $1 a day for the dogs, versus 28 cents per day for human prisoners.)

Arpaio noted that only three TV stations are shown in his tent prisons: the Weather Channel, so inmates can see how hot they're going to be; the Food Channel, so they can salivate over the unattainable delicacies, and C-SPAN.

He exhibited great delight while talking about how he forces inmates to wear pink boxer shorts with matching handcuffs. Indeed, Arpaio brought a couple of the boxer shorts, never used, to auction off for Anderson's campaign.

Now Anderson's protg, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, is taking a cue from Arpaio. Until renovations are finished at the old Metro jail the expected date for which remains unknown Maketa plans to erect a 14,000-square-foot tent for 150 to 180 inmates. It'll open within a few weeks to great fanfare, no doubt, with the media dutifully in tow.

Maketa will even heat what he has been quoted calling the "Big Top," all the way to 65 degrees. But when the outside weather warms up, as it will eventually, don't count on air conditioning. Or, apparently, running water. While there will be portable johns, there are currently no plans for showers.

The sheriff's spokeswoman said late last week that they are still working out the details, such as how inmates will be able to wash their hands after going to the bathroom, and the possibility they'll be escorted to the main jail facility for showers.

"All that is being squared away," said Sgt. Jeanette Whitney.

Maketa has experimented with several alternatives while dealing with the increased jail population, including releasing inmates early and no longer incarcerating people arrested on misdemeanor charges.

It's unlikely despite Maketa's "If it gets a little chilly on occasion, I think a little chill does the soul a little good" quote in the Denver Post that the sheriff will take on Arpaio's seriously sadistic characteristics. But having a tent jail is hardly a development Colorado Springs should be proud of.

Between 1996 and 2006, the inmate population in El Paso County increased by a whopping 71 percent. On Tuesday, 1,457 inmates were in the pokey of those, 1,007 were being held on felony charges and 402 for misdemeanors.

The statewide numbers are worse.

A 2006 report by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition determined that the Colorado Department of Corrections soon as in this year will run out of prison bed space for men and women.

Also, at the current rate, the state's total prison population is projected to grow from 21,000 to more than 29,000 by 2011, a 41 percent increase. The women's prison population is projected to grow 71 percent.

Between 1992 and 2004, Colorado's average annual prison population growth rate was 7 percent far exceeding the national average of 4.3 percent.

The good news and there is good news is that the tide is turning on prison reform, at least at the state level. The keep-building-prisons-and-throwing-away-the-keys mentality has changed dramatically.

The key theme now is reform both in sentencing and rehabilitation to prevent recidivism. Even a restorative justice plan for juveniles, in which offenders make things right with their victims, last week sailed unanimously through a state Senate committee hearing. Just a couple of years ago, the restorative-justice theory was considered a hippy-dippy idea that only Boulder could appreciate.

"This is a touchy-feely bill that even Republicans can love," quipped Sen. Shawn Mitchell, a Republican from Broomfield, eliciting much laughter.

Too bad that so many of those inmates many of them mentally ill, homeless or in for victimless offenses will be cooling their heels under the Big Top before any reforms reach them.

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