DENVER – Calling it a tinderbox waiting to explode, members of the Denver Sheriff’s Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police joined justice advocates and faith leaders in calling for the Mayor, Safety Director and Sheriff to resolve Denver’s jail overcrowding issue.
“Violent incidents are on the rise,” said FOP Vice President Mike Britton. “Deputies and other inmates are getting hurt.”
Britton estimates that they get calls for assistance, from different floors, up to 20 times a day, “because of unruly and undisciplined inmates.”
“One of those inmates had a colostomy bag attached to him,” Britton said. “It got knocked out, so part of his innards came out with it.”
Britton told Denver7 that a deputy who tried to help quell the fight had to go to the hospital because he was bleeding out of his eyes.
“We cannot train our way out of this crisis,” said Juston Cooper of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “We cannot staff our way out of it.”
When asked about the assaults, Sheriff Department spokesman Simon Crittle said, “We have a small number of inmates who are responsible most of the assaults, so we’ve come up with a new management plan for them.”
He said they’re putting the hard-core inmates that keep committing the assaults in pod 2-D.
“They don’t have a lot of benefits in there,” he said. “The idea is to put them on a behavior plan where they can work their way out of that pod, and what we’ve seen over the last month or so is a great reduction in bad behavior from those few bad apples that we do have.”
Crittle said the jail is crowded, but is not over capacity.
He said there are 2,300 people in the system now. Fifteen hundred in the downtown jail and 800 at the Smith Road facility.
He said the downtown facility has a capacity of 1,500.
Britton told Denver7 there were actually 1,530 people in the downtown facility on Wednesday.
Crittle said the overcrowding is cyclical.
“It spikes in the summer,” he said, “when more people are out drinking.”
“It spiked in 2013,” he said. “Ten years ago, the jail population was bigger than it is now.”
He said the big driver of the current overcrowding is Metro Denver’s dynamic growth.
“Colorado is a boom state. We’re taking in tens of thousands of people every year and that’s having an impact on infrastructure. Places like the jail are starting to feel the weight of that change.”
Justice advocates say Denver is incarcerating too many people.
They say people with drug addictions, mental health issues and those who are homeless or who can’t afford bond, should not be in jail.
They believe that instead of building jails, money would be better spent providing treatment for addictions, mental health services and housing.
Sheriff Patrick Firman replied to those concerns with an open letter to the community:
With a growing population, increases in mental health issues and substance abuse needs, and policies of incarceration at the national level proving to be overly burdensome, the administration remains committed to criminal justice reform efforts to reduce mass incarceration. Colorado has recognized the necessity for change and taken some steps to address it, but we must do more at the federal, state and local levels.
Here in Denver, our sheriff department transformation is progressing through a multi-faceted approach to address staff and inmate safety, manage jail population and engage our community – key aspects of that work locally.
To address staffing and inmate safety, we continue to evaluate our staffing levels in relationship to jail population and other department needs. Our staff is our most valuable asset, and creating a safe environment for both staff and inmates is of critical importance for the sheriff department. In 2016, we increased our staffing by 200 deputies and have another four recruit academies planned for 2017 to fill another 120 positions. These new and incoming deputies have been or will be provided Crisis Intervention Training, so that incidents between deputies and inmates can be de-escalated before they turn violent.
And an important part of managing the jail population is working to ensure that people who shouldn’t be in jail in the first place don’t end up there. Through initiatives like Drug Court, Homeless Court and our Co-Responder Program, we have worked to put people in supportive services, not jail cells. To reduce recidivism, our Transition from Jail to Community program works with those in our jails to support their education and employment, trauma-informed treatment practices, and connect them to mental health and substance abuse resources. This, coupled with increasing leadership engagement,
And through it all, we have actively engaged the insight of community advisory groups and explored new ways for our residents to be engaged in the ongoing reform process. The Crime Prevention and Control Commission will continue to take a leading role in analyzing data and developing new policies and procedures to reduce recidivism and the growth of our jail population through diversionary programs and alternatives to sentencing. We are excited to launch a newly created community advisory board to provide further community involvement on improvements to the department. Community input will continue to be taken as this board sets its priorities and goals.
Great strides have been made, but there is more work to be done. We will continue to keep you updated on our progress in building an inclusive and transparent framework with sustainable outcomes for those we have a privilege to serve.
Faith leaders and activists are demanding to be part of the process.
“Incremental moves have been made to make it look like our leaders want us to be part of the solution,” said Rev. Timothy Tyler of Shorter Community AME Church, “but the message they have given us clearly is they’re not interested in having us as part of the solution.”