Arapahoe County officials are ramping up their calls for new jail and courthouse facilities, hoping to ask voters as soon as this fall to approve funding for a nearly billion-dollar plan to replace buildings they say are increasingly crowded, dangerous and worn out.
“We're pushing our current jail facility to its limits,” said Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown in a virtual tour of the jail posted to Facebook on June 19. “The jail is crowded. Space is tight. The stress on everyone is building. It's like a pressure cooker.”
The video is among the prongs in an outreach campaign by Brown, the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office and the Arapahoe County commissioners to build support for an eight-year plan to replace the jail and courthouse, which will include town hall meetings and jail tours.
A long-range planning committee consisting of 25 citizens, convened in May by county commissioners to study the proposal, is expected to issue a report with recommendations in August.
In the jailhouse now
Assaults at the jail are at an all-time high, Brown said.
Inmate-on-inmate assaults are up 48% in the last three years, with a total of 86 in 2018, said Vince Line, the bureau chief of detention services for the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office in a February interview. Inmate-on-staff assaults are up 118% in the same period, Line said, with 24 in 2018.
The jail, built in 1986 and located on South Potomac Street near Centennial Airport, was originally designed to house 386 inmates, Line said. Expansions brought the current maximum inmate capacity to 1,458 — thanks in large part to cells designed to house one inmate that now house three.
More than half of the jail's inmates have not been convicted of a crime, Line said, with many awaiting hearings or trials or unable to afford bail.
Though the jail has four times the inmate capacity it was originally built for, its kitchen, laundry and infirmary are no bigger, with each stretched to the limit and unable to expand due to their location in the heart of the jail, Line said.
The jail is also poorly equipped to hold an increasing array of classes and programs meant to prepare inmates to reintegrate into society, Line said, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, and educational programs.
“Around 90% of folks in custody will return to our community,” Line said. “The more we can do to keep them from committing more crimes is better for them, better for the facility, and makes us safer as a community.”
Line recently had to turn down additional state funding earmarked for increased behavioral health services, he said, because the jail simply does not have the space for added progamming capacity.
“The best answer I can give,” Line said, “is we need more space and we need more resources.”
If you build it
Rather than continue trying to retrofit the current facility, Line said, the county would be best served by building an all-new facility on 11 acres of vacant land the county owns immediately adjacent to the current facility.
Current plans call for the new jail to have a maximum inmate capacity of 1,612, Line said, an increase of 154 over the current facility. The facility would be designed for a 40-year lifespan before expansion became necessary, he said.
Though the increase may not sound like much, Line said, the difference would be a reduction in overcrowded cells and more programming space. The jail would be built to more easily allow for expansion of housing and other functions in coming decades if necessary.
Retrofitting the current facility would be enormously difficult, Line said, because much of the core infrastructure is worn out or inaccessible in subterranean tunnels that have filled with sediment, construction would require shutting down large sections of the jail at a time with few places to move inmates, and the jail's hub-and-spoke layout means there's effectively no room to expand core functions like the kitchen, booking area or infirmary.
“If we spend a considerable amount of money to reutilize the current facility, does it get us even 15 years into the future?” Line said.
The plan also calls for an eventual replacement of much of the adjacent courthouse and district attorney's facilities as well, which county officials say are increasingly overcrowded and overbooked.
Paying the price
Among the biggest hurdles to selling the public on the plan will be the price tag, Line said. Current plans estimate the cost of a new jail at nearly $463 million, and the cost of a new courthouse and district attorney's facilities at nearly $465 million.
The county would do well to get started sooner than later, Line said, as the Denver area's economic and population booms are sending construction costs ever higher.
Former Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, who sits on the long-range planning committee, said he's frustrated it's taken this long to realistically talk about replacing the jail.
“This isn't news,” Robinson said of concerns over the jail's functionality. “This has been discussed ad nauseum. The question that needs to be asked of elected officials, and contemplated before this goes to the public, is what took people so long? I know they say it wasn't the right time or environment to ask for money, but the need has exacerbated and the cost to solve it has expanded dramatically.”
Part of the problem was delays caused by the Great Recession, said Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Baker.
“Grayson's got a point,” Baker said. “But a lot of governments struggled in that period. We deferred a lot of maintenance. The public was going through hard times too, and it wasn't the right time to approach them for big-ticket items.”
County staff have done an admirable job of keeping the current jail running, Baker said, but past a certain point it stops making sense to keep throwing money at a failing facility.
“Both the jail and courthouse were built to the best practices and standards of the 1980s,” Baker said. “With new facilities, we could incorporate much more effective safety and security protocols, and the buildings could be far more energy efficient.”
The current jail accounts for a fifth of the county maintenance budget, Baker said.
County commissioners are also aggressively seeking out potential state and federal grants to offset the cost of a new jail, Baker said.
“We owe it to the public to spend their money wisely,” Baker said.
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