CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Colorado Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera toured the Arapahoe County Jail Friday morning and got a firsthand look at the challenges facing the staff at that facility.
"When built in 1986, it had a capacity of 386 inmates," said Bureau Chief Vince Line. "This was probably appropriately sized for that population load."
But Arapahoe County is a much different county now than it was back then.
In 1986, the population was 377,636. It has since exploded to 651,215.
Arapahoe County Growth
The jail has been expanded to house upward of 1,458 inmates, and Line said there were 1,100 inmates in the facility on Friday.
While there are available beds to house more inmates, Administrative Manager Carl Anderson said there is not enough room to provide all the medical and mental health services that are needed.
"We don't have the space to provide group therapy," he said, "and I think a lot of people would benefit from that type of mental health intervention."
He said nearly 40% of the inmates in the Arapahoe County Jail are dealing with mental health challenges.
While touring the jail intake area, Primavera asked if deputies search for drugs.
"We do," Capt. Line responded. "If we have reason to believe they are in possession of something, then that search becomes more thorough."
Kate Horle is the Chief Operating Officer at CORHIO (Colorado Regional Health Information Organization,) an organization that connects digital health record systems so that regardless of where a patient goes for care, their medical history is accessible, in real time, to physicians and healthcare professionals who need it. She asked about the average length of stay in the jail. Line replied, "about 22 days."
Primavera said she hears about the criminal justice system from voters.
"I talked to a family once, and they had a loved one in jail and wanted to bring medication in because he was schizophrenic," she said. "And of course the jails wouldn't let him do that. He was concerned about continuity of care."
In November, Arapahoe County voters turned their thumbs down on a proposed tax increase to build a new jail.
The vote was 105,789 against and only 52,938 in favor.
When asked if the state might be able to help counties that don't have enough space in their jails to provide mental health or substance abuse treatment, Primavera said, "One of our big goals is to try to keep them out of the criminal justice system in the first place."
She said Gov. Polis has created the Behavioral Health Task Force, and that that is state's focus.
"All cards are on the table with what we can do to better provide mental health services in the first place," she said.
She lauded the Arapahoe County Jail for taking part in the "Medication Consistency Pilot Program," which includes a real-time health information exchange.
"The lack of continuity of care has been really painful for a lot of families," she said, "so to know that they are addressing that is very important."
Camille Harding, the division director at the Office of Behavioral Health, told Denver7, "It's important when someone is booked, to know what their service needs are, and then make sure we come up with a really good plan so when they're back out in the community, we can make sure they get connected to services."
She said when inmates don't get the services they need, often because of delays in getting patient records, they sometimes end up going to an emergency room only to be told they have diabetes.
"That's a lot of time – to drive across sometimes three counties – to get to a hospital," she said.
She said the health information exchange will help save time and tax money, and will ultimately reduce recidivism.
Harding said the goal is to equip all jails around the state with the set of services they need to be able to treat folks with behavioral health needs, connecting them to CORHIO, standardizing screening and making sure rural jails have telehealth technology and satellite phones.
Anderson said they're not giving up on their efforts to modernize the jail and get more space for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
"We keep pushing forward. We do the best that we can with what we have and our staff here we're committed to providing quality service."
He said they are "committed to working with our friends at the state level and local levels."
When asked if they'll get any help from the state for their physical plant, he said, "I hope so. It's important for us to let our challenges be known. I also think it's important to let people understand that correctional healthcare is a public safety and a public health issue and we do have to get that addressed."