The Pitkin County Jail, more crowded than it has ever been, needs an overhaul to allow separate wings for male and female detainees, as well as those suffering from mental-health issues, Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told county commissioners Thursday.
After a man and a woman being held in the jail had sex in April 2017 — jail deputies failed to perform routine checks, DiSalvo said — male and female detainees are no longer allowed to mingle and now wear differently colored uniforms. Those were among the changes recommended by two jail commanders from other jurisdictions who audited the facility at the request of the sheriff’s office.
DiSalvo, during a presentation on the proposed 2019 budget, told the commissioners that the jail population 10 years ago was routinely in the single digits, but now averages 18 to 19 people. And many are grappling with mental-health issues, he said.
Along with the office’s proposed budget of $4.5 million, a 10-percent increase over 2018, officials also discussed the detention budget of nearly $1.8 million, which would be up 7 percent over this year.
The proposed detention budget includes hiring one additional jail deputy, a full-time nurse and a contract with Aspen Ambulance, the latter of which would be enlisted for overnight health matters. The jail’s current medical program utilizes a nurse on a part-time basis, which DiSalvo said is not effective enough for inmates. The medical needs for many inmates, here and elsewhere, “are going sky-high,” he said in discussing what would be a $104,000 increase in nursing services for the facility.
“I do think this is one of those areas for exposure [to litigation] that we have running the jail,” he said, adding that proposal would only be a temporary solution.
Commissioner George Newman asked if the increase in medical needs is simply because there are more inmates.
DiSalvo said the jail population has increased and that medication for detainees, which the sheriff’s office pays for, can be very expensive.
Commissioner Patti Clapper said she would like to investigate establishing a cooperative agreement with Aspen Valley Hospital or one of the pharmacies in town to get medication cheaper. And Commissioner Rachel Richards said the board needs to continue to push for Medicaid, Medicare and veterans benefits “to be extended to people who have been arrested. That’s the single biggest problem.”
Richards said she’d support the funding request, noting “the last thing you want is a death in the jail.” The sheriff said a person who is arrested and detained in jail — even though they haven’t been convicted of a crime — automatically loses their health care.
Other changes have also been implemented to make the jail environment safer, DiSalvo said, including shifting away from activities like basketball and volleyball, which can lead to fights, and weight lifting (because barbells can be weaponized) to ping-pong, yoga and other “mindful” activities.
Having separate wings for men and women would alleviate staff from having to constantly escort the groups back and forth between a common area and their cells, and would lessen the time detainees have to spend in their cells because the other group is in the common area, he said.
The former emergency dispatch center adjacent to the jail, which has been moved to the North 40, could be used for a wing for those with mental-health issues.
DiSalvo said there are inmates with such issues who could be victimized by “predators” while incarcerated.
“I’d like to find a way to separate them,” he said. “I’d like to give them conditions that are more suitable for people with real mental illness.”
One initial step is consulting with an architect about how the jail footprint can be better utilized — he stressed that the proposal would not mean expanding the facility — and County Manager Jon Peacock said the money has already been allocated in the facilities department’s 2019 budget. But money to implement potential changes has not, he said.
Other factors in the budget increase include $71,000 to replace body armor; nearly $61,000 for a fleet service charge hike; and $52,481 in a radio service charge increase, stemming from a new cost model that shifts the cost from the emergency dispatch center to the sheriff’s office and other public safety entities, according to the proposal.
The lion’s share of the sheriff’s office budget, $3.5 million, goes to personnel, a 5 percent increase over 2018. That includes deputies getting formal uniforms, mainly the replacement of the blue jeans typically worn by upper valley law enforcement for years with police-issue pants. The change away from the laid-back appearance makes it easier for deputies to carry what they need on the job, DiSalvo said.
“It may be a separation from our culture as we’ve known it, but I feel that’s a necessary change for us,” he said.