Arapahoe County jail, stressed by growth, may need replacing, officials say

Current facility stretched to the limit, chief says

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Arapahoe County's jail is aging and may need to be replaced in coming years, say county officials.

The facility, built in 1986, is increasingly stretched thin as the county's population booms, said Vince Line, the bureau chief of detention services for the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office.

“We're so busy, and we have so many critical tasks with no ability to expand,” Line said. “It's a recipe for potential disaster.”

The jail, located on South Potomac Street near Centennial Airport, was originally designed to house 360 inmates in four pods, Line said. Two pods were added in 2002, and the current maximum inmate capacity is 1,458 — thanks in large part to cells designed to house one inmate that now house three.

The jail usually hovers around 1,100 inmates on any given day, Line said, meaning it's pushing up against commonly-used guidelines to not fill jails beyond 80 percent of full capacity.

Having spare bunks on hand is critical to allow for separation of inmates, Line said, because codefendants in crimes must be kept apart, as well as inmates who fight or are members of rival gangs.

Inmate-on-inmate assaults are up 48 percent in the last three years, Line said, with a total of 86 in 2018, and inmate-on-staff assaults are up 118 percent, with 24 in 2018.

About half the inmates at any given time have not been convicted of a crime, Line said, and are being held while awaiting court hearings or because they cannot afford bail.

Jail staff are also increasingly hurting for space to hold an increasing array of classes focused on rehabilitation, and mental health and substance abuse treatment, Line said.

“Back in the 1980s, there were hundreds more beds in psychiatric hospitals,” Line said. “Nowadays, people with mental health issues end up in jail.” 

Federal policies eliminated psychiatric beds nationwide in the 1980s. 

The jail faces an array of other constraints. Though the maximum inmate capacity is four times what it was 33 years ago, the jail's booking area, laundry, infirmary and kitchen are no bigger. Each one is pushed to the limit, Line said.

Inmates who need medical care often need to be triaged to access the limited number of beds, Line said.

The booking area is of particular concern, Line said, because all manner of inmates are brought in and released from the facility in close quarters with staff and each other.

Meanwhile, behind walls and under the floors, other infrastructure is reaching its limits — the sewage and electrical systems are increasingly stressed, and subfloor utility tunnels are increasingly filled with mud, Line said, and infrastructure upgrades would require taking vital services offline. Problems in the laundry room last year required a massive, expensive endeavor to ship laundry by truck to nearby facilities, Line said.

The jail also has a lack of handicapped-accessible facilities, Line said, with only one pod retrofitted for use by inmates in wheelchairs or using canes or walkers.

What can be done?

Expanding the current facility is difficult, Line said, because the building that houses core functions is landlocked - surrounded by inmate pods with nowhere to grow.

The best option might be to build a new jail, Line said, and county officials are beginning to explore what that might look like.

The county bought 11 acres of vacant land immediately adjacent to the current jail during the Great Recession with the anticipation of someday building a new jail, said Jeff Baker, chair of the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners.

A master plan presented to the Board of County Commissioners during a Jan. 22 study session laid out a possible course of action: a 10-year plan to build a new jail in several phases, and add capacity to the adjacent county court facilities. The total price: close to a billion dollars.

Baker said in the long run a new jail might be more cost-effective.

“Increasing disability access is crucial,” Baker said. “If we're not in compliance (with the Americans with Disabilities Act) we could be sued at any time. Taxpayers have to be aware that rather than defending lawsuits we may lose, it might be worth investing in a state-of-the-art, safe, functional facility.”

A new facility could bring down utility costs too, Baker said.

“The science of using water, energy and utilities is so much more advanced than when the jail was built,” Baker said. “We could end up saving money.”

The county is simply exploring possibilities at the moment, Baker said, and much more information will be needed before officials decide what to do.

“We need to have a firmer grip on what the needs are,” Baker said. “We need to look at what other counties have done. We need to make sure our taxpayers can support what we come up with. How do we do this right from the beginning? One of the worst things any government can do is overbuild. At the same time, the most important thing we can do is plan for the future.”

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