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The cost of crowding: Southern Colorado jails face massive overcrowding problems

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There is a massive jail overcrowding problem in Colorado and it’s costing tax payers millions of dollars to maintain and control.

State leaders are discussing the problem at the Capitol in Denver, but a solution may still be years away.

To find out just how bad the situation is, News 5 Investigates paid a visit to the maximum security floor of the Pueblo County Jail, where inmates are staying three to a cell in a cell that is designed for just one person.

“All you can do is keep your head up and the conditions? Hope they get better,” said one maximum security Pueblo County inmate who asked to remain anonymous because he’s still awaiting his court date. "I was pretty much institutionalized in and out since I was a young kid but being as that is said, the conditions have worsened so much it's not even funny, you know, you got a jail built for 500 and some inmates and they're cramming anywhere up to 900, 750, 800 you know, the overflow problem is horrible there's times when they only got enough toilet paper for one cell,” said the inmate.

Inmates and jail administrators tell News 5, the overcrowding situation is making the facility more dangerous.

"Very sir, especially when you got a couple of guys like I got in here they are real in tune to their bodies, they're working out every day, you know, it turns into a rough situation ,” said the inmate.

Pueblo County jail leaders tell News 5, 78% of those locked up are pre-sentenced inmates.

News 5 is told 58% of them are felons.

A look at the most recent survey conducted by state leaders shows of the 20 of 64 Colorado counties that responded, seven of them were over capacity.

The survey concluded that Pueblo County was in the most overcrowded.

Pueblo County jail leaders said the last time they remember being at capacity was in 2007.

The state survey shows there are 1672 Department of Corrections inmates in county jails state-wide.

“Jails aren’t designed to be long-term facilities, but that’s what they’ve turned us into,” said Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor.

The inmate News 5 spoke with said the increasing danger is noticeable.

“The tempers get flaring a lot more than they would normally you know with just two guys in here and I myself stay in this boat, that's my way of life right there is a boat, you come in you got a boat sitting right there,” said the inmate.

The boat he’s referring to is what he was given to sleep in as an effort to keep him off of the floor.

The day of News 5’s visit to Pueblo County jail, there were 803 inmates in a facility built decades ago to hold 509 inmates.
There was also a main water line leak in the property room of the jail during our visit.

“I'm concerned about the safety of my officers, so as we increase in our population in our jail, my staffing has not increased, so my people have to work more hours and when they work more hours they get tired and when we get tired we make mistakes,” said Taylor.

Meanwhile, in El Paso County jail, there were 1610 inmates housed the day of News 5’s visit, a record high since the jail was built a county spokesperson said.

The high numbers force jail administrators to perform daily juggling acts to keep prisoners and deputies safe.

“We end up moving people around the facility quite often to keep segregation’s away from one another, co-defendants away from one another and to free up available bed space for people just coming into jail that we don't know their history yet,” said Rob King, who runs the El Paso County jail. “When it get's critical, we reach out to other counties, we might have someone in our facilities on an out of county warrant, we try to get those people back to the county where the warrant is originating from," said King.

A Colorado Department of Corrections spokesperson tells News 5, there are currently 

Director of Corrections Travis Trani sent News 5 the following statement regarding their role in helping ease the backlog of inmates.

“While Department of Corrections offenders only make up a small percentage of the overall jail population, it is critical that we work with our community jails to appropriately manage inmates throughout the state, reduce overcrowding, and ensure public safety.   Similar to many of the county jails, the Department has experienced an unexpected increase in its offender population that was not anticipated by external projections.  This increase has created capacity issues within the state prison facilities limiting available beds to process DOC offenders from the county jails,” said Trani.  "In light of this development, the Department has been able to implement several temporary offender housing options to reduce the jail backlog and as of today the jail backlog is 196 offenders for the 64 counties we serve in Colorado. These temporary offender housing options and overcrowding in our facilities are not ideal for safely managing our offender population and have created significant operational challenges for our staff, but they have been necessary to relieve the pressure in our community jails and ensure that our obligation to public safety is met."

The Colorado Department of Corrections told News 5, as of September 30, 2017 there were 203 vacant general population beds.  A state Department of Corrections representative said there are 278 offenders out of the facility on court or medical trips, so if all of those were to return to the facilities, the state too would be over capacity.

“The state might have 200 beds available right now but we've got 200 parolees in our facility right now, most of those have local charges, so they couldn't go back to the state facilities right now anyway, but if you combine that with the 50 or 60 DOC backlogged inmates we have, our facility could easily take those 200 beds today,” said King.

Lawmakers who sit on the County Courthouse and County Jail Funding and Overcrowding Solutions Interim Study Committee are studying what legislative fixes there may be, while also listening to concerned law enforcement leaders from across the state, but many know any legislation that carries a price tag with it will be very difficult to pass through the statehouse.

“I think it's a good narrative to have, I think it's a good discussion to have, I think it's important that it's reached the state level and unfortunately there are some jails around the state and mine is among the worst that don't have a lot of time,” said Taylor.

“Wait and see, I'm hopeful, I think it's a very good sign that they've formed this committee and that they've actually taken steps to get together and they've discussed the problem because we've gone years and years where no one has really addressed the problem,” said King.

The County Courthouse and County Jail Funding and Overcrowding Solutions Interim Study Committee meets again on Thursday August 31st at the Capitol in Denver.

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