Thinking outside the box

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Sheriff, jail administrators implement programs to increase safety, cut costs

When Montezuma County’s Detention Center was built in 2001, following the passage of a sales-tax measure in 1999 that provided the funding, the facility was designed to hold 104 inmates.

But when Sheriff Dennis Spruell took office in 2011, the jail was regularly housing many more than that, and it appeared voters were going to have to be asked to fund an expansion.

“Our census was 130 to 135 when I came, and it was obvious we were going to have to build a new jail,” Spruell said.

Instead, Spruell and the detention-center staff worked with the courts to develop a pretrial services program that makes it easier for people who have been charged with a crime but not convicted to bond out and be supervised until their court date. This has helped to lower the number of inmates in detention and forestall the need to expand the jail.

That is just one of several efforts made in recent years to improve conditions and efficiency in the facility. Among them are the addition of a counselor from Axis Health System who screens inmates for mental-health issues and substance abuse; and a pilot program that provides guidelines on best management practices for jails.

“We’re always trying to think outside the box,” said Detention Commander Vici Pierce, the jail commander.

Counselor Trish Wilson of Axis Health System was recently hired by the Montezuma County Detention Center to help address inmates’ needs. Photo by Gail Binkly

Counselor Trish Wilson of Axis Health System was recently hired by the Montezuma County Detention Center to help address inmates’ needs. Photo by Gail Binkly

Under the pretrial services program, a judge can put an offender on PTS as a bond condition.

“Before pretrial services, the judge would place bond conditions on them such as no contact with their victim or no alcohol, but nobody verified they did that,” explained Lt. Garet Talley, who is second in command at the jail. “They were reoffending all the time. “Now we are holding them accountable to the bond conditions. We don’t make the determination to put them back in custody, but we notify the courts they are violating bond conditions.”

Talley said he believes the program has truly helped. “It has made it easier for inmates to bond, and the judge is more willing to lower the money amount knowing they will be supervised, which results in our lower inmate count. It has effectively culled out the lower risk inmates. The ones that remain [in custody] are higher threats to the community.”

In 2012, the jail’s average inmate count was 101 and the highest was 127. In 2013, that had dropped to an average of 69 and a high of 83.

“The pretrial program has helped. We’re starting to see the results of it,” said Pierce. “At 140, the stress level is high. The jail was at capacity when we opened up. Creating some of these programs has helped a lot – of course, safety and security come first.”

There are three levels of supervision under the pretrial-services program, with measures that range from daily phone check-ins to monitoring of suspects’ sobriety and GPS tracking of their location. For instance, leg-worn monitors can tell if a suspect is drinking by analyzing his sweat, Talley said. “It will pick it up even if you drink Listerine,” he said.

Or a “soberlink” device – similar to a portable breath test, but with a cell-phone link – tells a suspect he needs to test at random times. “They blow in the machine and it takes a picture of them, so we know it’s them, and it sends in the results.”

The suspects must pay for their monitoring or other requirements under pretrial services. Those fees go back into the jail fund, Pierce said, helping to pay for the program.

One advantage of the pretrial program is it saves money. The cost of housing an inmate is $50 to $55 a day, according to Carter.

The pretrial clients pay $50 a month for their monitoring and also pay for their own drug testing, bringing in some $70,000 a year. Even factoring in the salaries and benefits of the staff assigned to pretrial services, the program saves money for the county.

Carter said, “With the sheriff coming in and doing pretrial services, it reduced the jail population, and it certainly didn’t cost more than $55 a day. If they go out, they pay for their own monitoring and drug tests, so it’s not a burden on the taxpayer or sheriff ’s office.

“We’re always trying something new. We’re not stuck in a rut here. The sheriff is very open minded about listening to any ideas we have.”

One of those ideas was to bring in a counselor. Trish Wilson of Axis was hired around the beginning of the year under a grant from the Colorado Division of Behavioral Health. She works with the detention center’s nurse to assess inmates for mental- health and substance abuse issues, which are common.

“The hope is to get them help on the outside,” Pierce said. “Once they get out, they usually go back to their pals and the same thing happens over again, so we’re hoping we can get a good treatment plan for them.”

Because this effort has just started, there are no statistics on its success, she said, “but we have big hopes that maybe some will follow through and get to the places they need to be.”

“Hopefully we can stop the revolving door,” Talley added.

Detention Deputy Donnie Brown works in pretrial services. Photo by Gail Binkly

Detention Deputy Donnie Brown works in pretrial services. Photo by Gail Binkly

The detention center also has an orientation deputy who helps assess inmates when they arrive at the facility, trying to see what their needs might be, and helps make sure they know what is expected of them while in custody.

Talley said, “You may have a person coming in who is a first offender and is clueless, doesn’t know the court process, doesn’t know if they can bond out. The orientation process is going to help them understand the rules, and that helps them be more cooperative and pleasant with us.”

“We said, ‘Why don’t we make that orientation person able to help both Axis and the medical staff ?’, and it helps,” Pierce said. “At intake, the orientation deputy can get medical information for the nurse to see the needs of the individual. When the assessment is done, the nurse and Axis can talk to them about mental health and substance abuse.”

Mental-health problems among inmates commonly include situational depression, anxiety, and more serious conditions, said Anna Utley, RN at the jail. She estimated that 70 percent of the inmates have substance abuse issues as well.

“The street deputies will say the same thing,” agreed Carter. “Most people are under the influence of something. Alcohol is the No. 1 problem, then probably meth.”

“A lot will utilize and abuse benzos [tranquilizers] as well as pain meds,” Utley said.

“Meth is more symptomatic. Almost everybody comes in on medical marijuana, but I don’t see it as problematic as much as meth.”

Asked whether a detox facility in Cortez would be a help, Carter, Utley, Pierce, and Talley all responded with an emphatic yes.

“We need a detox center in this county,” Carter said. “It would be awesome.”

“I think it would keep a lot of people out of the system,” Pierce said.

At present, intoxicated people who haven’t committed a crime have to be transported to Durango’s detox center, run by Axis Health. “Those people have become a burden on law enforcement,” Carter said. “We lose a deputy for 2 1/2 to 3 hours to go all the way to detox with someone with no criminal charges. With the level of intoxicated people we get in our jail, we would have no trouble filling a detox.” She added that she would like to see a facility that had a joint operating agreement with Indian Health Services.

The jail was hit with some unwanted publicity in 2013 when three inmates died over a six-month period while in custody. The first death was a suicide; the other two were the result of medical conditions.

Sheriff Spruell said it was unfortunate that the facility’s staff bore the brunt of the resulting criticism, because they had worked hard to save the inmates. One of the men who died was a chronic alcoholic who died of natural causes, he said, while the third death, which also occurred in a man with a high blood-alcohol level, was the result of an aneurysm. In both cases, the inmates had been medically cleared at Southwest Memorial Hospital before coming to the jail.

Having a detox center in Cortez might help in some situations involving seriously intoxicated inmates, Carter said, because the jail doesn’t have staff to provide the extra monitoring and care needed by such clients.

“That’s what I am really pushing for. I would like to see a detox here in the next four years. It would reduce the jail population by 50 percent. It’s needed, but they’re expensive.”

While Montezuma County’s old jail, in what is currently the Justice Building, was notorious for being escape-prone, the new facility has proven secure. Just one escape has occurred, Pierce said, and that was years ago, in the minimum-security unit. An inmate removed the screws from a maintenance-closet door, tore out a vent, went out to get cigarettes, and came back, she said.

Since then, the jail has installed a perimeter fence and put alarms on the maintenance closet doors. In addition, it increased surveillance cameras from 27 to 62.

In 2013 the jail began using video visitation for inmates, which allows them to see visitors via video camera rather than in person. This cuts down on inmate movement and increases safety. It also allows a family to chat with a loved one in jail from their home, Talley said, if they have a webcam.

The staff is also pleased with their adoption of a pilot program that provides webbased access to guidelines for jail operation and inmate treatment.

“When the sheriff first got into office, I went to him and said, ‘Please, please, we really want to head in this direction’,” Pierce said. Spruell gave the OK, and the Montezuma County Detention Center became the first in Colorado to adopt the program. “It has become so popular that many jails statewide are going to adopt it,” Spruell said.

The program allows jail administrators to access jail guidelines based on Colorado and United States laws. “Now I can get online and if I have a question about what are the constitutional guidelines for inmates shaving, I can pull up ‘hygiene’ and it will bring up so many things,” Pierce said. “Our whole goal is to be a constitutionally run jail.”

Carter, who has an extensive background that includes working in corrections, patrol, and detective’s divisions and as a defense and a prosecuting attorney, said she believes the Montezuma County Detention Center does an excellent job overall.

“For the size jail it is, I think we do an exceptional job,” she said. “We just had an attorney and former New York prosecutor take a tour, and he couldn’t believe the size of our holding cells and how clean the facility was.

“In the last three years we have really tried to think outside the box and work with others to save money and keep the same level of services.”

Pierce agreed. Working in detentions is stressful and challenging, she said, but her staff does a good job. “I’m proud of my people. I really love them,” Pierce said. “I can see myself doing this another 20 years.”

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From April 2014.