These photos show conditions inside the Arapahoe County Jail.
BY FREDA MIKLINGOVERNMENTAL REPORTERThe Arapahoe County Long Range Planning Committee (ACLRPC) is a 25-member panel of residents, business leaders and nonprofit executives formed by the Board of County Commissioners to study and help guide decisions about future county needs. The committee is focused on long-term transportation issues and future infrastructure requirements at the Arapahoe County Justice Center. They are also being briefed on the county’s use of open space tax dollars.
The most pressing need appears to be replacing the county jail.
The current status of the facility
In a presentation to the ACLRPC on June 11 at CentrePoint Plaza in Aurora, Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office Bureau Chief of Detention Services Vince Line outlined why the Arapahoe County Detention Facility is in dire need of replacement. On June 17 the committee met again to ask questions and get more information.
Built in 1986 for 386 inmates, the jail currently holds around 1,200. Due to ongoing efforts to prevent unnecessary incarceration for lesser offenses through lower bonds, pretrial diversion, home detention, alternative sentencing and calling (now texting) to remind people about their court dates, the jail population is now comprised of detainees charged with more severe crimes. Many also have significant mental health issues and there are only 20 cells designed for those with acute medical or behavioral issues. Line estimates 40 percent of inmates have mental health issues. That excludes anyone with a substance abuse problem, which the sheriff’s office does not classify as a mental health disorder.
Line explained that recent changes in Colorado law allowing certain drug-related charges to be reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors under specified conditions has put additional pressure on county jails, since they house misdemeanor offenders while state prisons usually house those convicted of felonies.
As the inmate population has grown, the support services areas, including kitchen, laundry, and medical treatment facilities have not been expanded since the jail was built in 1986. Due to the location of those service areas in the middle of the complex, there is no physical area in which facilities can be added. Centralized building systems, such as plumbing, HVAC and electrical systems, have also remained virtually unchanged, repaired through a patchwork of fixes, because many of the crawl spaces underneath the buildings, designed to provide access to mechanical equipment, have been infiltrated by dirt.
The critical lack of space in the jail provides limited opportunities for inmate programming. In a 2017 article published by the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, researchers demonstrated the high value of educational, job-training, and alcohol and drug addiction programs in reducing inmate recidivism. According to Chief Line, research shows that “50 percent of inmates who receive re-entry services (how to find a job, housing, etc.) do not reoffend.”
The booking and intake area, where municipal police departments throughout Arapahoe County bring their prisoners, in addition to those arrested by sheriff’s deputies, is also severely inadequate for our current population. Containing 18 cells and 29 beds, that facility frequently houses 70-80 inmates in the process of being booked or released. In 2018, 17,832 people were booked, 16,730 released, and 26,526 transported to court through that building. “Tight spaces and constant inmate movement,” according to Chief Line, make it difficult to separate inmates causing disturbances. He also cites the “high number of inmates on suicide watch in booking.”
Chief Line noted that the Arapahoe County Jail is not able to comply with state law (CRS 17-26-105) which requires that persons awaiting trial are to be kept “in rooms separate and distinct” from those who have been convicted and sentenced. The law contains an exception “for any county whose jail does not have sufficient room for such separate confinement.” Nevertheless, the bureau would prefer to follow it. At the Arapahoe County Jail, 44 percent of inmates have been convicted and are serving sentences; 56 percent are awaiting trial.
What it will take to solve the problem
The plan to build a new facility, which will be designed to have a 40-year life, has been separated into two phases. The first will include a new booking and intake facility and all centralized services, including kitchen, laundry and medical areas, which will be designed to be able to be expanded. The second phase will be all the inmate housing, constructed to be expandable by building upward. Housing units will be designed to separate high, medium and low-risk inmates, as well as those with behavioral health issues. Of course, men and women will also be separated.
Ken Morris, Arapahoe County Manager of Project Operations, told the committee on June 17 that the current up-to-date cost estimates are $195 million for phase one and $267 million for phase two of the jail complex. Chief Line estimated it will take eight years to complete both phases, but he emphasized that final designs have not been completed. If the design of phase two was to be done while phase one is being built, it could save time.
The ACLRPC will meet three more times, on July 10 and 23 in the Littleton Rooms at CentrePoint Plaza at 14980 E. Alameda Drive in Aurora, and on July 30 in the Arapahoe Room at Lima Plaza, located at 6954 S. Lima Street in Centennial. All meetings are from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and are open to the public.
Once they have completed their work, the ACLRPC will report their findings and recommendations to the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners. Additional information can be found on the county’s website at http://www.arapahoegov.com/2050/Long-Range-Planning-Committee.
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