Garfield sheriff says use of force in jail reduced

The Garfield County Sheriff’s Department has reduced its use of force in its jail and may be near settlement of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union over its treatment of inmates.

But Sheriff Lou Vallario said reforms at the jail have had nothing to do with the lawsuit, and instead have resulted from a change in jail leadership and his department’s continuing efforts to keep up with changes in how jails are operated.

Vallario said a lot of the credit goes to Steve Hopple, who served as jail commander for about a year and a half until recently deciding he wanted to get back to working on the street by becoming a Garfield patrol sergeant.

Said Hopple, “I had a great time, but my heart is on the road, not in the jail.”

Vallario said when Hopple ran the jail, he all but eliminated thinking among some jail employees that they were there to punish inmates, rather than just carry out what was ordered by the courts.

Under Hopple, the jail ended the immediate use of force to extract inmates who refused to come out of cells, Vallario said. Now, as long as inmates aren’t hurting themselves, jailers simply will leave them in their cells for a while, let them cool down and talk to them first, Vallario said.

Vallario said the jail disciplinary process has been changed to give inmates the right to be heard and to appeal decisions.

The ACLU brought the suit in 2006 on behalf of four inmates and has sought to have it expanded to class-action status. It accuses the sheriff’s department of inappropriate use of restraint chairs, pepper spray and other forceful measures, denial of mental health care to indigent inmates and imposition of harsh discipline without due process.

Vallario said the jail has added two padded cells where inmates who are a danger to others or themselves can be placed in lieu of a restraint chair. And change in contractors has meant it can provide twice as much mental health care for the same price, he said.

The sheriff’s department has hired Donna Draper, a former lieutenant in the Mesa County Jail, to replace Hopple.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU in Colorado, said he couldn’t comment on how the jail was running under Hopple.

Vallario said he believes a settlement may be near, and he’s confident the case will be resolved without any showing of wrongdoing by the jail.


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