MARTHA KARNOPP: Keeping Arapahoe County free of for-profit jails means public investment — vote yes on prop 1A


Raise your hand if you want more private prisons/jails! No? Well, most people don’t want private corporations to be making a profit from housing those who have been arrested on suspicion or convicted of crimes. That is a governmental function. Under Colorado law, each county (our sub-state level of government) is responsible for establishing, maintaining and running a jail for the purpose of detaining those arrested and awaiting trial or convicted of minor offenses. This function is part of maintaining a safe and orderly community for the benefit of all.

Arapahoe County built a jail in 1986. Part of the “genius” in designing it included encasing the plumbing in concrete, which hasn’t proven to be a good idea over time. In addition to the extreme difficulty of repairing plumbing problems, the electrical system is failing, the mechanical systems are failing, concrete floors have large holes, etc. The designed capacity of the jail was about 380 inhabitants. It currently houses approximately 1180 inmates on a daily basis. A kitchen designed to feed 386 inmates now feeds about 1200. Cells designed for one inmate are now bunking 3 inmates at a time. These conditions have developed over the years and have been decried by at least the last three sheriffs over two decades, so this is not a new problem nor is it a failure of Sheriff Tyler Brown, who has been in office nine months. The Arapahoe County jail serves 13 different municipalities in the area.

Jails are required by law (and by good practice) to separate certain populations. For example, women must be separated from men, members of rival gangs are to be separated, those who are ill are to be separated from those who are not, etc. The booking and release room, with its original 18 cells, now has to accommodate over 80 people at a time, including jail staff and attorneys. The crowding, high tension level and inability to separate as required, all heighten the potential for danger and violence. In 2018, there were 24 assaults on staff alone, an increase of 120% over the last three years.

Many of those brought into the county jail have mental health and/or substance abuse problems These people need to be dealt with humanely, often with diversion to other programs and resources which can help with their problems A major purpose of the jail system is to prevent recidivism, i.e., the commission of future crimes by those individuals who are caught up in the system by being arrested.

So where do the “private prisons” come into the picture? When the governmental entity responsible for providing that function ceases or is unable to provide that function. Let me propose an entirely possible scenario: An organization representing the human rights of the inmates might sue Arapahoe County for placing those in their custody in inhumane conditions, in an uninhabitable facility. A judge, looking at the conditions of our current jail, could easily order that the entire jail be shut down and that no one be placed in it. So where would the Arapahoe County sheriff (or the 13 municipalities) put people arrested for crimes or sentenced to short term sentences for minor offenses? If 1A were defeated, the commissioners would have to say they are unable to build a new jail because the voters said no. So alternate facilities would have to be found. And here come the private corporations “to the rescue,” saying “we will house your inmates and detainees for $X/day.” Voila! Arapahoe County would then be a government using “private prisons.” And this would be at the choice of the voters.

Some say why not just repair the current jail? Why not just expand it? The capacity has been expanded twice, and given the design, it is impossible to expand it further. The comprehensive decay of the entire structure of all the systems of the building makes it impossible to improve or fix the problems.

You can take a video tour of the jail here:

Issue 1A on the November ballot in Arapahoe County requests the approval of the voters to build a new jail, on land purchased near the current jail by the county commissioners a few years ago. This new jail will cost $464 million dollars and will be financed by a mill-levy increase on real property. The cost to an average homeowner will be about $5.66 per month. Arapahoe County currently has the lowest mill levy among the ten metro counties, and this mill levy would put Arapahoe County on a par with (or still lower than) surrounding counties.

The sheriff’s staff provides a number of educational programs to those in the detention facility. With the assistance of over 100 volunteers, the programs include basic literacy, AA, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health screening, etc. Therapists from mental health facilities work onsite at the jail to provide screening or assessments; individual therapy; group therapy; and re-entry case management services, as needed. The class curriculum is designed to address substance abuse issues and criminal conduct using a cognitive-behavioral framework. The current jail contains only two classrooms, which severely limits the number of people who can be helped by these programs, whereas the new jail will have eleven classrooms. There are currently only 20 cells for medical issues, clearly not enough to serve those who are ill.

Opponents say that instead of building a new jail we should address the needs of those caught up in the criminal element of our society. Obviously, the sheriff’s office is attempting to meet those needs even within the inadequate facility. Voting NO on the jail would not make more of these programs available to those who need them.

The new jail would be designed with 1600 beds/cells. This would provide for appropriate separations as mandated by law. Opponents say that the sheriff’s office would arrest more people and work to be sure all those beds are full. Or, on the other hand, they argue that other cities have voted for and paid for new jails which are now sitting empty. This all-or-nothing argument does not reflect the reality of the current practices of the sheriff’s department, which is attempting to meet the needs of those who fall within its jurisdiction. Voting YES on the jail will not logically result in either of those scenarios.

There are those who say no to any improvement in our current situation, refusing to “coddle” the people who are arrested. Those people do not realize that the average stay in the current jail is 22 days and those people who have been arrested will be released back into our community. If they have been helped in some way or connected to community resources, they will be less likely to commit more crimes, which will benefit all of us. Voting NO on the jail will in all likelihood make recidivism worse.

Why should the taxpayers of Arapahoe County have to pay for this new jail? Because it is in our county and it is our responsibility. Because it will benefit all of us by reducing recidivism. Because we can proudly say that we support criminal justice. Why a property tax? Because it is the most progressive tax, unlike a sales tax which would put the burden on those least able to afford it. $5.66 per month is not an onerous amount for a property owner and in the long run property values will be higher due to an improved county government and administration of justice. Vote YES on 1A.

— Martha Karnopp, Aurora via [email protected]