The Boulder County black hole

Paul Danish

As a matter of full disclosure, Paul Danish is currently running for County Commissioner. Should any other candidates for County Commissioner or current Commissioners desire equal space on this issue it will be provided by Boulder Weekly.

The world record for jail over-crowding is held by The Black Hole of Calcutta. Boulder County’s jail does not rise to that level, but it still sucks.

For the past three years Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle and District Attorney Stan Garnett have been telling the Boulder County Commissioners, in so many words, that the Boulder County Jail is a ticking time bomb.

On each occasion the Commissioners have responded by mouthing the usual pieties and kicking the can down the road. Last year they responded with a favorite ploy of red-blooded bleeding heart liberals faced with a problem that threatens their world view — they hired an outside consulting firm to study the problem — Nebraska-based MJ Martin Inc.

Last week consultants Mark Martin and Gary Bowker presented their findings to the commissioners.
It was Groundhog Day in July.

According to a story in last Sunday’s Daily Camera, Martin and Bowker told Commissioners the jail’s chronic over-crowding and soaring population of prisoners with mental health problems has reached the point where the staff is losing control of the jail to the inmates.

The current jail, which opened in 1988, was originally designed to hold 287 prisoners, with an optimal capacity of 85 percent of that, according to Martin.

“It was full the day we moved in,” Jail Director Bruce Hass told the Camera in 2014.

Since then, its capacity has been expanded seven times, mostly by double and triple bunking, but also by a bricks-and-mortar addition of a 64-bed medium security wing.

Today it houses around 535 inmates, as it has for the last three years. However, the jail’s staff is only marginally larger than it was when it opened. Martin and Bowker recommend expanding the staff by 29 full-time equivalents.

How bad are conditions in the jail? Here are some of the things inmates and jail staffers told the Camera in 2014 and 2015:

·In 2014, then-20-year-old Stephanie Mills was arrested on DUI and theft charges. The Camera reported she was living in a jail module “where upward of 70 women are routinely crammed into just 16 rooms.”

·In the summer of 2015, the jail was so over-packed that inmates had to spend over half their time on lockdown, because the staff felt it was unsafe to lend an entire module of offenders out of their cells at the same time. Most inmates didn’t get to go outside “for more than one out of 48 hours.”

·In May 2015, Deputy Ryan Scheller went to unclog a toilet in the cell of a man with whom he had always gotten along. The man snuck up behind Scheller and punched him in the face repeatedly, breaking his nose. A few weeks later, an inmate smashed a deputy’s head with a lunch tray, breaking bones in his face.

·About 40 percent of the jail’s inmates have a diagnosed mental health problem, more than twice the number than when Pelle took office in 2003. Although Pelle doesn’t say it, the county jail is turning into a combination jail and mental hospital — with inadequate staffing for either role.

Since 2014, Pelle has been calling for the construction of an “alternative sentencing facility,” essentially a minimum-security, dormitory style jail for inmates with mental health or substance abuse issues and for low-risk offenders who can be put in programs that allow them to keep their jobs.

Pelle is thinking in terms of a 300-bed facility. Larimer, Weld and Adams counties already have them.

“I toured Larimer County’s and talked to them extensively,” Pelle told the Camera last year. “Larimer is demographically very similar to Boulder County by population, etc. And this facility is very, very successful.”

The cost of the facility would be about $12 million to build and $4 million a year to operate.

The Commissioners’ reaction to all this was to hire Martin and Bowker to study the problem — and let it fester for another year. Pelle said the County, “is in analysis paralysis.”

So what’s to be done?

It doesn’t take a genius to answer that. For openers, increase the jail’s staff. Hire the 29 full-time equivalents the consultants recommended and then some. Now.

If you’re going to lock up 535 people a night you better damn well keep control of what goes on in the lock-up. Kicking that particular can down the road is not an option.

Longer term, immediately approve the alternative sentencing facility Pelle and Garnet have been calling for — only build a 400-bed facility to accommodate the needs of a county whose population is increasing by 50,000 a decade.

As for the immediate over-crowding situation, pay to house 100-150 inmates in other people’s jails. This could cost $2 to $3 million a year, but it would get the inmate population back down to the level the jail was built to accommodate. And defuse the time bomb.

The Commissioners will poor-mouth and claim they don’t have the money to do these things, of course. Hogwash. After the feds reimburse them for the $63 million they took out of the general fund to pay for flood relief they’ll have plenty in the till. What’s more, Boulder County’s booming economy and present taxes are producing hefty surpluses that the County has been allowed to keep since the voters exempted them from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights limitations in 2006.

A week before Martin and Bowker delivered their report, the Board voted to ask the taxpayers to re-purpose half of an expiring County open space tax that would raise $112 million over the next 15 years, not for roads or public safety, but for so-called “sustainability” projects, like composting.

The problem isn’t a lack of money but Commissioners who are clueless about the core responsibilities of their office, and the priorities and imperatives of civil society.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.