Press gets sneak peek of DNC protester lockup

The holding cells for detained DNC protesters are spartan — chain link, chairs and concrete — but the razor wire was removed during the media tour of the facility. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

The holding cells for detained DNC protesters are spartan — chain link, chairs and concrete — but the razor wire was removed during the media tour of the facility. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

After more than a week of rampant speculation over what has been dubbed by some activists as “Gitmo on the Platte,” the Denver Sheriff’s Department invited members of the media on a tour of the controversial jail built to process those who are arrested during next week’s Democratic National Convention. During the Wednesday morning walkthough, sheriff’s officials confirmed that the facility will be able to hold up to 400 arrestees and that guards will be carrying Tasers.

The tour was the first to provide media a look inside the jail since the facility’s location was discovered and filmed by a local television station last week, prompting activists to assail the lockup as a secret plan by the city to curtail free speech. The Denver Mayor’s Office promised a media walkthrough of the facility soon after its location was revealed.

One thing that was noticeable upon entering the city-owned warehouse at 3833 Steele St. was the harsh breeze coming from more than a dozen white ventilation tubes connected to outside vans supplying air conditioning.

The second thing that immediately stood out was the missing razor wire from the metal fence cages where arrestees are planned to be held. TV news footage broadcast of the facility had shown cages topped with barbed wire, but it had been removed before the tour.

Denver County Undersherriff Bill Lovinger gives a tour of the overflow processing center. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

Denver County Undersherriff Bill Lovinger gives a tour of the overflow processing center. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

It was because of “community reaction” that the wire was removed, said the tour leader, Undersheriff Bill Lovingier, manager of the Denver Sheriff’s Department, the agency that is responsible for corrections in the city. Instead of the razor wire, there will be a metal fenced ceiling to prevent escape attempts, and private contract workers were busy securing the cage tops during the tour.

In 2006, a city audit found that the building, which was used to store elections equipment, was plagued by radical temperature changes, getting so hot as to possibly damage the machines. But Lovingier insisted that the warehouse would continue to be air conditioned with the cooling vans and a large collection of industrial floor fans.

Steps in the booking process

Lovingier took reporters through the typical booking process that is supposed to be given to an arrestee at the building. First, those arriving at the jail will be searched with metal detectors and will be fingerprinted to check state and federal databases for warrants. Then arrestees will turn over all personal affects to sheriff’s personnel except for cash, credit cards or phone cards. All transactions of personal property will be under video surveillance to prevent incidents, according to Lovingier. After that, individuals will be sent to one of 20 18-by-18-foot square cages that are organized based on an arrestee’s processing status.

Information stations stand ready to process protestors. The Sheriff's Dept expects to process 60 detainees per hour. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

Information stations stand ready to process protestors. The Sheriff

Telephone stations and bond stations in the jail are also supposed to be made available to those who are locked up. The jail also includes an infirmary and will have five nurses on duty at all time, to provide treatment and standard medications. If for some reason a person is arrested and needs specific medication that the nurses don’t usually carry, he or she will be transferred to Denver Health, Lovingier said.

When asked about signs warning of the use of electronic weaponry, Lovingier confirmed that Tasers would be used by guards to restrain an arrestee in specific instances of violence, as is the policy throughout the Denver jail system.

Lovingier said that the protocols in the makeshift jail are no different from those in the city’s regular corrections facilities, and that the only difference is that individuals wouldn’t be staying over night at the warehouse.

Other offenders who are arrested during the convention but have no relation to protest groups may also be taken to the lockup, depending on where they get arrested, but no felons will be taken to the building. If an arrested person has been contaminated with tear gas or other chemicals they will be take to a decontamination point before going to the jail. There are 23 portable bathrooms planned to be inside the facility when it opens.

When asked exactly how many arrests the city was prepared to handle during the convention, Lovingier said, “All of them.”

When asked to elaborate, the undersheriff said that regardless of the number, the city would be ready, and he confirmed that there were no other makeshift jails in the Denver area.

Those arrested in Denver during the convention will be sent to the warehouse, to the city’s pre-arraignment detention facility downtown at 1351 Cherokee St., or to the county jail at 10500 East Smith Rd.

Jail planned since convention was announced

Planning for the lockup began a year and a half ago in January 2007, right after it was announced that Denver would be the location for the convention, said sheriff division chief Marie Kielar, who was also at the tour.

Sheriff’s officials studied detention cases at both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2004, but didn’t contact law enforcement officials in the area for advice, according to Lovingier.

The barbed wire has been removed from the top of the holding cells, and workers are struggling to top them with chain link in time for the convention. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

The barbed wire has been removed from the top of the holding cells, and workers are struggling to top them with chain link in time for the convention. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

At the Republican convention in New York four years ago, more than 1,200 people were detained at Pier 57, a long, concrete pier off the Hudson River that was converted into a detention center for arrestees. Razor-wire security fencing around the pier’s perimeter was also installed before the 2004 convention.

Building Denver’s warehouse jail cost $500,000 in taxpayer funds, all paid for by a $50 million security grant for the convention that has been approved by Congress, Lovingier said. Almost half of the jail’s cost goes to the air conditioning, with a bill of $40,000.

Since the location of the lockup was revealed last week, members of the Sheriff’s Department have begun going door-to-door to surrounding houses and businesses advising them of the jail in their area. On Tuesday evening, Sheriff officials held a tour of the warehouse for community members and 10 attended.

Although the state Department of Corrections will be assisting with busing arrestees to the jail, they will not be involved with detention issues at the facility.

The lockup will start operations on Sunday and run until Aug. 31, three days after the convention ends.

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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