HARD CELL: Persuading voters to raise taxes for a new Arapahoe County jail won’t be easy

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An inmate is walked to a holding cell after being processed in the booking area of the Arapahoe County Detention Center. County officials are hoping that the voters will support a measure allowing for the construction of a new facility.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Picture a government building with leaking gas lines,  hundreds of feet of clogged plumbing and frequent assaults.

Welcome to the Arapahoe County Detention Facility.

That the jail on South Potomac Street is in need of an overhaul has been a 20-year talking point for a trio of Arapahoe County sheriffs, all of whom have decried the building’s cramped layout, faltering infrastructure and practically non-existent programmatic space.

Built in 1986 to house 386 inmates, the jail now houses anywhere between 1,100 and 1,200 people on any given day, according to county statistics. Nearly all of the inmates are housed in one of the facility’s six pods — two more were tacked onto the original four in the early 2000s — and triple bunked in 68-square-foot cells.

Excess piles of laundry sit outside of the laundry room of the Arapahoe County Detention Center, Sept. 19, 2019. County officials are hoping that the voters will support a measure allowing for the construction of a new facility.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

For years, officials at the jail have said the building is too worn down to revamp. Fixing pipes encased in concrete would require moving the entire inmate population, and adding new circuit breakers would overload the facility’s grid.

That’s largely why Democratic Sheriff Tyler Brown and others are now asking county voters to pass a tax increase to underwrite a new jail.

Late last month, Arapahoe County Commissioners unanimously agreed to ask voters to raise property taxes by an average of $5.66 a month to scrap the current jail beside the Denver Broncos training facility and erect a new one next door.

Expected to be financed over the course of three decades, the new facility would boast a maximum capacity of 1,612 inmates and cost approximately $464 million, according to county calculations.

Though still merely sketches, early plans include more open living accommodations to curb flared tempers of inmates kept inside approximately 23 hours a day, nearly double the number of spaces for attorneys and caseworkers to meet with clients, and 10 additional classrooms to host programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. A new building would also add space for group therapy for more than 1,100 inmates a month — compared to some 768 people who receive those services now — a bevy of religious services, and re-entry services for nearly the entire jail population. Currently, about 224 inmates a month receive re-entry resources, such as avenues to housing, employment and mental health assets upon release. Nooks in a new building would allow re-entry staffers to meet with an estimated 1,446 inmates a month.

A new building could also expedite an expansion of the building’s medication-assisted treatment programs, which currently allow people who are getting treatment for opioid addiction prior to getting arrested to continue their medications, including methadone and naltrexone, when incarcerated. The jail plans to soon make the program available on a voluntary basis to addicted inmates who want to begin opioid addiction treatment while incarcerated.

Eaten sack lunches wait to be discarded in the kitchen of the Arapahoe County Detention Center, Sept. 19 2019. County officials are hoping that the voters will support a measure allowing for the construction of a new facility.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

“We’re not asking for silk curtains or anything, but we are asking for plumbing that works, and it needs to be safe for deputies and the people that work there,” Democratic County Commissioner Nancy Jackson said earlier this summer, alluding to the rise in assaults at the jail last year. The jail recorded 24 assaults by inmates on jail staffers in 2018, the highest number in the facility’s history, according to the sheriff’s office.

But persuading voters to sign off on a $464 million expense in less than two months could be a hard sell, according to early polling conducted on behalf of the county.

In a survey of approximately 400 Arapahoe County voters completed in July, less than half said they would support a new property tax to finance a new jail, according to a county poll conducted by Ciruli and Associates. In the same poll, 58 percent of respondents said they don’t know enough to rate the condition of the jail. A fifth of those surveyed said the jail had average conditions.

Half of the survey respondents said they would support a so-called de-Bruceing, or untangling of tax limits that would allow counties to keep “excess” tax revenues. Nearly all of the state’s counties, municipalities and school districts have de-Bruced. Earlier this summer, a local planning task force considered pursuing a de-Bruceing measure coupled with a reduced mill levy increase to fund a new jail, but decided against that option, citing a lack of voter support.

“I would love it to be a property tax and a de-Bruceing,” Committee Member and Former Aurora City Councilwoman Polly Page said last month. “But this is not the time to de-Bruce.”

A statewide ballot measure asking voters to de-Bruce state tax refunds is also slated to hit mailboxes this Election Day.

But asking both voters and policymakers to pay for any sort of criminal justice issue can be a tough ask, according to Laurel Eckhouse, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver.

“Generally, it’s very difficult to provide funding for prisons and jails and have them be safe and positive environments,” Eckhouse said.

While acknowledging a severe dip in national crime rates since the 1990s, Eckhouse said appetites to fund programming and support services to incarcerated individuals — not just housing — are still generally meek.

Inmates at the Arapahoe County Detention Center are lead through the halls of the facility Sept. 19, 2019. County officials are hoping that the voters will support a measure allowing for the construction of a new facility.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

“For a long time there was a great deal of interest in funding criminal justice, especially when thinking think about “the war on crime” as the ‘80s through the ‘90s,” she said. “ … But throughout that you’ve also seen pushback on funding for resources for people convicted of crimes.”

In Colorado, criminal justice ballot measures have had a mixed, though largely successful record in recent years. Voters in Denver and Adams Counties are among the Arapahoe County neighbors that have signed off on new taxes for criminal justice facilities in the past two decades, with Boulder County voters adding themselves to the lot last November. Douglas County has had a “justice center sales and use tax” for more than two decades, though voters there will decide whether to move the revenues raised from that levy to improve roads this Election Day. Even residents in deep red Mesa and Fremont Counties approved justice-focused sales taxes in 2017 and 2013, respectively.

Still, two failed sales tax initiatives intended to fund a new Pueblo County jail in 2015 and 2017 indicate the local measure is anything but a guarantee.

“Both of those were roundly defeated and I guess I wasn’t terribly surprised,” said Sal Pace, a former Democratic state representative and Pueblo County Commissioner from 2012 to 2018. “As you’re looking at all the things that government can fund, jails don’t create economic development and jobs. With the exception of building the facility when you have construction jobs, you’re not growing or helping your community a whole lot … There are a lot of voters out there that believe that if you are a criminal or suspected criminal then getting the nicest facility should not be a top priority.”

Echoing calls from a slew of progressive organizations, Pace said bond reforms, alternative sentencing, and reimagined re-entry programs could be more effective solutions to county jail woes than new facilities. He said that egos often prevent such reforms from being enacted, and predicted a third proposed sales tax to fund a Pueblo County jail set to go to voters this November will meet yet another buzzsaw for the same reason.

“What the voters don’t always realize is that politicians like to see their names on a plaque and sometimes the most cost-effective and wisest option doesn’t put your name on a plaque,” Pace said. “What disgusts me is politicians would rather have their name on a plaque for a jail than for a new economic development opportunity.”

Results like those in Pueblo have been easy fodder for community members opposing the measure.

“I feel good about our chances,” said Elisabeth Epps of the Colorado Freedom Fund, an organization that works to bail people out of jail and is opposing the Arapahoe County measure. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but at the end of the day, people are really cheap.”

Even with the new mill levy increase — a portion of which would sunset in about 30 years — Arapahoe County would boast the lowest mill levy total in the seven-county metro area, according to county calculations.

Despite the opposition, Brown contends he has ample ammunition to convince voters.

For example, there was the gas line that recently leaked in the kitchen.

“Thank God we didn’t have a problem and nobody got hurt,” Vince Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office Bureau Chief Line, said.

Inmates and officials at the Arapahoe County Detention Center wait on a door to open giving them access to a hallway of the facility, Sept. 19, 2019.County officials are hoping that the voters will support a measure allowing for the construction of a new facility.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Then there was the several hundred feet of towels, bedsheets and other foreign objects recently retrieved from the antiquated plumbing system that inmates had introduced into the pipes.

“They have a lot of down time,” Brown said of inmates. “Plumbing issues are abundant. There are parts where you can walk up to pipes and you can almost push your finger through because they’re so worn down.”

After spiking in 2006 at more than 1,300 inmates a day — at which point inmates were routinely relegated to sleeping on floors — the daily population at the Arapahoe County jail sunk to about 900 people in 2016. Since then, the daily head count has steadily crept up. So, too, has the number of people being held at the jail without a conviction for their charges. The number of pre-trial detainees at the jail has tracked up in recent months, according to Line. On a recent Thursday, nearly 800 of the 1,193 inmates were pre-trial.

Those increased pre-trial ratios have made it nearly impossible for the jail to comply with a state statute that requires authorities to detain convicted criminals separately from inmates who have only been suspected of crimes and are awaiting trial, according to Line. But a safeguard in the law that precludes facilities that do not have the capability to keep such inmates away from one another prevents the jail from technically breaking state law.

The rising number of pre-trial detainees at the facility has irked activist groups like the Colorado Freedom Fund, ACLU Colorado and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, all of which have come out against the county ballot measure.

“We think counties and local municipalities should work on de-carcerating,” said Denise Maes, public policy director at ACLU of Colorado. “… Because the majority of people in jail are pre-trial detainees which means they are innocent and we need to find a way to get them out of jail instead of building more beds.”

The average length of stay at the jail is currently about 22 days, according to Brown. The facility houses all convicts that receive sentences less than two years long, while all other convicts are sent to the Department of Corrections.

To combat the number of pre-trial detainees, Line said staffers are now calling people charged with crimes to remind them of upcoming court dates so they don’t miss an appearance and pick up a warrant for their arrest. That program is now extending into text alerts, which Line said has been “extremely successful.”

If the ballot question doesn’t pass in November, Brown said the county will regroup and look at coming back in another election year. Officials could also pursue a workaround known as certificates of participation, which are often chided as mechanisms used to usurp the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

“If it’s not successful, you’ll see it again,” Brown said. “We’re going to come back, or we’re going to have to find a different way to fund this, but I really think that the county commissioners want to make sure that the residents of Arapahoe County have a say in what’s going on. But it’ll be back.”