FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The lockdown ends after an inmate strapped to a stretcher is wheeled down a fluorescent-lighted hallway and into a secure room, where he is met by firefighters, EMTs and more uniformed deputies.
The 32-year-old started having seizures, exceeding the treatment abilities of the Larimer County Jail’s medical team.
Emergencies at the jail require a facility-wide lockdown for security reasons, meaning hundreds of inmates are sent to their double-bunked cells until a situation is resolved, reported the Coloradoan (http://noconow.co/2eopHK9).
Built in 1983 and expanded bit by bit since, the Larimer County Jail has seen an unprecedented population surge the past two years. Capacity issues continue to plague law enforcement, criminologists and the community, and a jail tax extension from 2014 cannot be used for construction of new facilities.
That means sooner or later, voters will likely be asked to help foot the bill for new facilities — the latest example of the community being asked to help fund northern Colorado’s social services.
“What we need to do is truly respond to what we see before us, respond to the reality of our community today,” said Capt. Tim Palmer, who has overseen the jail since 2011 and has been with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office for 33 years. “Fort Collins and Larimer County are growing. The jail that we’ve had here since 2000 is not going to be the jail that’s here in 2020. There’s just no way around it.”
Taking the pulse of an overcrowded jail goes beyond an inmate count.
From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 2013, the jail had 162 emergency codes spanning medical needs to melees that prompted unscheduled lockdowns. There have been twice as many — 327 — during the same time this year, records obtained by the Coloradoan show.
Combined with prescheduled lockdowns and those prompted by fights or other emergencies, it becomes clear there is no such thing as “routine” at this beleaguered facility that has surpassed what “capacity” means.
The average daily population figure serves as a guidepost officials use when discussing everything from staffing to funding. The number of inmates at the jail decreased markedly between 2005 and 2014, the result of a host of alternative sentencing programs diverting people from jail and instead keeping them in the community, at work and connected to their families.
The last two years have seen a drastic and troubling reversal.
This year’s average is 534 inmates — 26 percent higher than two years prior and 96 percent of capacity — in a facility normally outfitted with 557 beds.
Jail staffers say those figures only begin to depict challenges that hit new levels when the inmate count soared to 590, the second highest in jail history and bested only once earlier this summer. Deputies sent 15 inmates to Washington County on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. If that hadn’t happened, there would have been a record 605 inmates in the Midpoint Drive facility.
Palmer uses an airport metaphor to explain what it’s like operating so far beyond the nationally recommended benchmark of 80 percent to capacity.
Catching a flight from Denver in the middle of summer can be seamless.
The day before Thanksgiving, everyone’s on edge.
“The problem is it isn’t just a holiday weekend. It’s all the time,” Palmer said. “That stress in the building is hard on the staff. It’s hard on the inmates. And it shows in the behaviors that we experience.”
Expansions have struggled to keep up with increased demands driven by variables including who’s in custody, why they’re there and the extent of their medical or mental health needs. A surge in the number of homeless inmates has taxed resources in ways not seen here before.
Experts say hardships hitting the Larimer County Jail and facilities across northern Colorado are indicative of much thornier challenges affecting an increasingly populated Front Range, prompting some to wonder if the clock is running out for local lockups.
The pretrial puzzle
There has been a paradoxical decrease in the percentage of inmates serving sentences and an increase in the number of people who aren’t posting bond — or are being held without it — before trial, records show.
About 47 percent of people in custody in the Larimer County Jail during a 2011 snapshot were being held pretrial. At the same time, 39 percent were serving sentences. Another 14 percent were being held for other reasons.
That same snapshot from Jan. 1 this year found 60 percent of people were being held pretrial, and 29 percent were serving sentences. About 10 percent were being held for other reasons.
The explanation dates to the mid-2000s.
In an effort to divert nonviolent offenders convicted of lesser crimes from jail, Larimer County ramped up alternative sentencing programs and the use of problem-solving courts where judges allow some individuals to serve sentences outside of jail or work with certain offenders whose mental illness or substance abuse contributed to criminal activity.
“What that means is that as compared to other jails what’s left in the Larimer County Jail are the far more serious offenders,” Palmer said. “Those who are a danger to the community if they’re let go. Those who are accused of serious crimes and the risk of them committing another crime if they are released is heightened.”
And then there’s over-representation of in-custody homeless individuals.
Nearly 30 percent of those currently in custody self-identified as homeless, transient or residents at a shelter. That’s up from about 15 percent last year.
Some are being held for technical violations like missed court dates, or misdemeanor charges. Most in custody are charged with assaults, robberies or other felonies.
“Many of the homeless people that we experience here live that way by choice, and jail is not a deterrent,” Palmer said. “Jail means free medical care. Free food. A place to get out of the weather.”
A toxic environment
There used to be more low-level offenders who would balance out hostility that might arise when a number of more violent offenders cross paths in the common areas.
The number of inmates being held pretrial on felony charges related to property crimes — felony theft, for example — has increased by more than 30 percent in four years. The number of people being held on suspicion of felony crimes against person — felony assault, rape, or murder, for example — has nearly doubled.
And that puts people in that incarcerated airport line on edge.
Having lesser offenders in the community rather than in custody is generally viewed as noble and a smart use of tax dollars; it costs about $88 per day on average to house someone at the jail.
It also reverses a generally stable atmosphere in the jail and results in more instigated defiance, like what happened earlier this year when inmates made statements consistent with “inciting a riot.”
“The rate of those things occurring is skyrocketing, and I think it’s completely attributed to the stress they experience because of the confinement in the overpopulation in a smaller area,” Palmer said, referencing the doubling of emergency lockdowns.
Corrections in the U.S.
Dr. Prabha Unnithan is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Colorado State University who studies incarceration, parole and policy related to the criminal justice system. He said there’s “some truth” to the rhetoric about relapse being driven by early release prison programs and a backing away of “tough on crime” policies from years past — policies now advocated by some, including Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith.
But Unnithan puts an asterisk next to that statement.
It might be the truth, but it’s not the whole truth.
In the 1980s, the number of incarcerated individuals shot through the roof, driven by a similar mentality, the war on drugs and deinstitutionalization of state mental health facilities. That spurred an expansion of jails, prisons and incarceration options.
But eventually those began to overcrowd.
The population of adults under supervision of U.S. correctional systems — in custody or on parole — peaked at 7.3 million in 2007. It has since decreased about 1 percent annually and was at its lowest level in a decade in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Criminologists generally cite three reasons for climbing jail populations.
Changes to state statute, like adding a category to the penal code or decriminalizing something like possession of certain amounts of marijuana, can have an effect that might not show up in statistics for years.
There’s also modifying the system, like changing what judges take into consideration when deciding whether to send someone to spend two years in the local jail or the state prison.
And then there are the demographic variations affecting much of the Front Range in population growth and the surge in young people — especially those younger than 24 years old — who statistically are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Add in a tight job market and exorbitant housing costs and the increased number of offenders makes sense.
“It’s simply unavoidable, everything else being equal,” Unnithan said, referencing the demographic change. “The legal changes, the social changes, the criminal justice system dynamics, I think all of these things probably contributed to what’s going on in the jail.”
Unnithan said there are three main ways to deal with a large number of people entering state prisons: turn them away and shift the burden back to local jails; build more facilities; or the “backdoor strategy” of releasing people before their sentences are completed.
A similar understanding helps explain the jail puzzle.
The first suggestion is a nonstarter — jails can’t just turn people away.
The latter worked a decade ago when certain inmates who served 75 percent of their sentence were released. But that policy would affect the sentenced population, a percent of the jail already shrinking.
Outsourcing inmates to other counties is a short-term option. But it removes individuals from communities and support systems. Plus deputies say it poses other problems, such as logistical challenges with in-person court appearances, finding inmates who fit facilities’ parameters and the inevitable competition for bed space as other facilities take a similar approach.
That leaves expansion.
Weld County has consistently seen its average daily jail population inch upward, hovering around 650 inmates in recent months. Some days are higher in the facility staffed to handle 719 inmates, and plans to add a wing to the facility have been delayed until 2020. Likewise, the Boulder County Jail has regularly operated precariously close to capacity, housing 500 inmates from time to time and spurring multiple calls for early release or expansion — the facility was initially designed to hold half that.
“I need to start planning for what resources are necessary a decade from today,” Palmer said. “Will additional facilities be necessary? Absolutely.”
Palmer has begun lobbying elected officials to think about construction of a new facility. It won’t be one big lift, he said. But within five years he and other jail brass hope to have a new booking and release center operational.
The sheriff’s office isn’t asking taxpayers for money — yet. And any ongoing talks or planning come at the same time voters in the November election are weighing an initiative for a taxpayer-funded $20 million behavioral health facility.
It’s been just two years since voters approved extending a jail tax touted as bringing in an estimated $7.5 million per year, almost a quarter of the jail’s annual $24 million operating costs to keep things running as is. That tax money doesn’t contribute to capital expenditures, like building new facilities.
Voters might roll their eyes at the proposition of another jail-related funding request.
But it just might be the only answer when every day is the day before Thanksgiving.
“The stress level is continuing and we don’t foresee it going away,” Palmer said. “If we could attribute what exactly the one factor is that’s causing our population to increase, we’d just target that one factor and we could drop the population.
“The problem is that it isn’t there.”
Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com