More inmates than ever are locked in Mesa County Jail
AUDIO EXTRA: Click “Listen” for audio quotes
RELATED STORY: Solving the jail overcrowding problem
For more than two decades, an oblong concrete room in the Mesa County Jail was used as a gym where inmates could blow off steam, get a little exercise, break up their days.
As of August, however, ongoing crowding problems and record numbers of inmates prompted the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office to gut the room, fill it with 48 beds and rebrand it the “Maple Pod.”
Unlike other pods in the facility at 215 Rice St., Maple Pod doesn’t have cells with doors, a common area and an adjacent rec room outside. It’s more akin to an open dormitory, with rows of bunk beds pushed against one wall, a TV mounted on one wall, some tables and a raised desk for guards.
The loss of the gym is just one sign that the jail — originally built in 1992 with a planned capacity of 192 beds — is straining at the seams. The jail’s average daily population reached an all-time high of 463 inmates in September, the fourth month in 2016 that the jail broke its own record.
Year over year, the jail’s average daily population spiked by 15 percent between 2014 and 2015. It’s on pace to rise by another 10.5 percent this year.
As of Friday morning, the jail housed 445 inmates, with that number expected to rise throughout the weekend.
The factors that have driven up the jail population are complicated and have no easy solution. Booking numbers are actually lower in recent months, according to Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis, but the people who are in the jail are staying there longer.
High-risk defendants who can’t make bond tend to have more serious charges and longer court cases, which means the entire process slows down as the jail fills. Factors like a national shortage of mental health care providers and substance abuse counselors and a crowded state prison system also trickle down to the Grand Valley. Criminal justice leaders have been working on potential fixes for some time, and there’s no shortage of ideas. Most cost money. All take time to implement.
“IT’S HORRIBLE WHEN YOU’RE IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SPACE”
The jail’s population is always fluid, and there’s no hard-and-fast rule — or legal requirement — for how the Sheriff’s Office determines if the jail is overfull rather than just very full. The capacity is technically close to 450 beds, but there’s room to fit more depending on how high-risk the population is on any given day, Lewis said.
Nevertheless, anecdotes abound that describe the effects of the high numbers.
In August, 10 inmates who were sentenced to time in state prison — which has its own population problems — were temporarily transferred to a county jail in eastern Colorado to free up space in the Grand Junction facility.
Inmates are at times double- bunked and given cots on cell floors. Grand Junction defense attorney Steve Laiche said earlier this year he represented a woman who was arrested on a Friday on suspicion of drunken driving. She told him she was kept over the weekend in a crowded cell in the jail’s booking area.
“Twelve women in booking in the cell. No privacy …,” Laiche said. “How dehumanizing is that? On a driving case?”
A Mesa County jail inmate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, which his attorney said was from fear of retribution, described the living conditions in the jail as crowded and often frightening. The man, who is facing a second-degree assault charge and whose court record and identity were verified by The Daily Sentinel, said physical fights occur on a weekly basis in his pod. The man said he was double-bunked recently.
“It’s horrible when you’re in someone else’s space because ... it’s a one-man cell, and basically you’re like two feet away from using the bathroom in front of somebody. There’s no privacy at all,” he said. “If you don’t like the person at all or whatever, you’ve just got to get along with them. If not, you’re pretty much fighting. It’s pretty bad. … I feel like an animal, I mean, to be honest with you.”
It’s harder for defense attorneys to schedule visits with their clients, and inmates have less access to “pro-social supports,” said Steve Colvin, who heads Grand Junction’s public defender office.
“We have clients who are having a harder time getting access to visitation with their families,” Colvin said.” We have clients who are having a harder time getting access to people who are on the outside to take care of life chores.”
Anecdotally, fights and assaults among inmates are up, said Detentions Capt. Art Smith, who manages the jail.
The inmate whose name is being withheld said he was assaulted while other inmates gathered to watch. He claimed the fight lasted 10 to 15 minutes before deputies intervened.
“I was scared for my life,” the man said. “I was thinking, ‘Was I going to die right there?’ … It was pretty scary.”
Although The Daily Sentinel obtained a record of the incident, the report doesn’t specify how long the attack lasted. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Megan Terlecky said she didn’t know of a fight that had lasted that long without intervention.
REFORMS ALREADY IN THE WORKS
Crowding in the jail didn’t sneak up on anyone, and potential solutions in the works weren’t thrown together at the last minute.
As an example, Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein pointed to the implementation of “evidence-based decision making,” which in practice means that people considered “low-risk” offenders have a better chance of getting out on bond after they are arrested.
As a result of a committee’s work on bond reform, about 90 percent of people arrested for “jailable cases” are released with a summons or on bond, according to information from the Mesa County Criminal Justices Services Department. Of those who remain in the jail while their cases move forward, about 80 percent are classified as “higher risk.”
To Rubinstein, those numbers mean the system in place is working as it was intended to.
listen“For several years now, we’ve been making smarter, better decisions on who needs to be in custody, so that we let the low-risk people out and keep the high-risk people in,” he said.
Colvin said those reforms have definitely helped, but that still too few people are being released on bond.
listen“Our overcrowding is worse now than it was before we had done all the bond reform stuff,” he said. “So either there’s a whole lot more people out there committing more crimes, or we still have work to do on getting lower-level people out of custody. And I think there’s still room to work on getting people out.”
Wait times at Mesa County’s Community Corrections program are also a factor. The program, run by the Criminal Justice Services Department, is a path out of the jail for inmates who have been sentenced to the program by a judge after a conviction.
“At any given time I’m always sitting on a double-digit population” of jail inmates waiting to get a bed at Community Corrections, Smith said.
Community Corrections’ available space is also impacted by parolees released from state prisons who find their way to the program, whether as a “transition” back into mainstream life or as a condition of their parole. Parolees often struggle with mental illness, which compounds their likelihood of being arrested on a violation.
“Those mentally ill parolees end up in our program taking up beds that could be used by other folks,” Criminal Justice Services Department Director Dennis Berry said.
MENTAL ILLNESS, SUBSTANCE ABUSE FACTORS
Mental-health and substance-abuse issues permeate law enforcement from patrols to jails to release. In the jail, those problems often come to a head immediately.
“You get people that are mentally ill that have been self-medicating with methamphetamine,” Laiche said. “They’re withdrawing cold-turkey, plus you’re crazy? … It has to be a horrible way to come down from drugs.”
Jason Talley, Community Corrections’ clinical director, said his program is heavily impacted.
“At Comm Corr, we are totally maxed out,” Talley said. “We’re about stretched to our limit as to what we can manage with our mental health issues here.”
Among those limits is a lack of psychiatrists, who can prescribe medication and get patients into programs that can help them. The needs are great enough that in many facilities “telepsychiatry” has been set up to allow patients to consult with psychiatrists remotely via teleconference, Talley said.
The planned expansion of Mind Springs Health’s West Springs Hospital is welcome, but it’s a double-edged sword, Talley said.
“It will definitely help,” Talley said. “It’s a bit like if you build it they will come, and we’ll still have more need out there.”
Summit View Treatment Center, the substance abuse treatment program that Talley runs for men, has been trying to fill a treatment therapist position for several years. The program — which has its own waiting list — currently has the space for 36 male inmates who have substance addiction and who are approved by prosecutors for the program. But because the therapist position hasn’t been filled, Talley can only accept 24 men into the program based on state requirements for staffing levels.
Mind Springs Health, the contractor for women’s substance abuse treatment, has the same problem, Talley said.
“It’s not parole’s problem. It’s not the jail’s problem. It’s not our problem. It’s a community problem,” Berry said. “We have to figure out how to address these seriously mentally ill people that we have in our communities.”
Proposed solutions from criminal justice leaders in Grand Junction are as varied as the problems. Lewis said his staff can still manage the jail’s high numbers and he doesn’t think a new jail building or a major expansion is in the immediate future, although “at the rate that we’re going, I think that’s an inevitability” at some point.
Other ideas include bringing back a weekend bond magistrate who could help streamline releasing low-risk people arrested over the weekend, and who currently have to wait until Monday afternoon to see a judge.
Mesa County Chief District Judge Brian Flynn said the committee that oversees recommendations for how bonds are set has a lot of work to do before deciding on any other major changes.
On the more large-scale end of possible fixes, Colvin said he would like to see a massive expansion of Summit View with a higher emphasis placed on mental illness.
“I’m a big believer that if we address causes of behavior we solve future problems,” Colvin said.
listen“Mentally ill people get locked up in jail because they just don’t know where else to put them. Substance abuse and mental illness go hand-in-hand, of course, but reality is, there’s a lot of people that if you had some options as far as the mental health problems go, you totally don’t need them in jail.”
Some people believe that a concerted effort from judges years ago to move away from using bail bondsman also has contributed to jail crowding, although Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle said the DA’s office doesn’t believe that’s true.
Laiche said if judges issued more surety bonds — the type of bonds that generally involve a bondsman — it could help more people get out of jail and give a private entity a reason to ensure those defendants show up for their court hearings.
“The government’s going to hound him, so he has every financial incentive to make sure his clients go to court,” Laiche said. “Use somebody else’s cash. … Use the bail bondsman’s cash. It seems to work across the country; why is this place an exception?”
While other suggested solutions range from the jail rejecting people arrested on municipal warrants — a move Lewis thinks won’t help much — to fixing the economy and addressing a national drug counselor and mental illness provider shortage, Rubinstein said there’s simply no magic bullet.
“We’ve got a lot of pretty bright, pretty innovative people who have been working on this for a long time,” Rubinstein said. “If the solution was simple, we’d have been done with it.”