Colorado’s First Tent Jail Open For Business

With El Paso County’s jail all full up, Sheriff Terry Maketa has taken his cue from “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and this week opened Colorado’s first tent jail to dozens of prisoners on work release.

Within two days of the tent jail opening, 38 prisoners were calling what Maketa has referred to as the “Big Top” home. In all up to 200 inmates will be housed there until a permanent facility is completed. From the outside the 12,000 square-foot tent somewhat resembles a miniature Denver International Airport terminal, but inside, the jail has no showers and the only food available is vending machine snacks. The work-release inmates, says spokeswoman Sgt. Jeanette Whitney, will spend the nights inside the tent, and then head off to jobs during the day.

The idea to ease overcrowding in Colorado’s most populous county is modeled after Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s tent city. The flamboyant sheriff has made a name for himself with stunts like forcing inmates to wear pink boxer shorts and using matching handcuffs on them. There are currently no plans to replicate that activity in Colorado, but, in an era where the current emphasis is on reform over incarceration, not everyone is gung-ho about Arpaio’s import.

“I just don’t think this is very well thought out,” said Mary Ellen Johnson, the founder of the Pendulum Foundation, an organization that is dedicated to sentencing reforms, particularly for juvenile offenders who are serving time in adult prisons.

“[Maketa’s always said, ‘we have to have alternatives, we’re going to have to do something’, but he’s never ever mentioned tents, so this shocked me.”

Maketa, a Republican in his second term in office, has experimented with several alternatives while dealing with an upward spiraling jail population, including releasing inmates early and no longer incarcerating people arrested on misdemeanor charges.

Between 1996 and 2006, the inmate population in El Paso County increased by a whopping 71 percent, recently housing nearly 1,500 inmates. Roughly one-third of those were being held on misdemeanor charges.

While reforms that will likely soon be adopted legislatively will likely take time, Johnson noted, other alternatives, – including halting the practice of automatically denying nonviolent prisoners parole, and not jailing people for technical violations – could also be considered, she said.

“I just think it’s a ridiculous plan – the idea that we’re going to piecemeal locking people up or arresting them without considering alternatives,” Johnson said.

Maketa’s tent jail is next to the Criminal Justice Center, in Colorado Springs southeast of downtown.

Last July, Arpaio – who has been called “America’s Toughest Sheriff” – came to Colorado Springs to stump for Maketa’s predecessor and former boss, John Anderson, during his unsuccessful bid for Congress.

During his visit, Arpaio bragged about how he spends more money feeding dogs in air conditioned cells than inmates warehoused in his desert tents. He also described how he pipes in only three TV stations to his prisons – the Weather Channel so inmates can see how hot they’re going to be, the Food Channel so they can salivate over the unattainable delicacies, and C-SPAN.

He didn’t mention, however, the $9 million verdict that was slapped down against him earlier in the year after after one of his inmates died after being strapped in a restraint chair. Nor did he talk about another $8.25 million settlement Mariposa County agreed to shell out in 1999, involving the death of another inmate who had been strapped in a restraint chair.

Cara DeGette, a longtime journalist, is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential, and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at

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