Its downtown jail packed, Denver readies a ‘deteriorating’ old building for inmates

Denver’s downtown jail, opened in 2010 by then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, was supposed to provide enough space at least until 2035. But now, under Mayor Michael Hancock, the detention center is already so packed that officials are preparing a dilapidated old jail building in northeast Denver to house the expected overflow.

Preparations come after the city has spent tens of millions of dollars on a commission that was formed specifically to avoid overcrowding by providing alternatives to jail.

They also come as Hancock’s administration claims, curiously, that there’s no problem.

“Denver’s jails are not overcrowded. There is spare capacity within the system,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Simon Crittle wrote Thursday in an email to The Independent.

It was an odd assertion from an administration that, just a day earlier, alerted its staff that it’s moving quickly to put a defunct county jail building, known as Building 20,  off Smith Road into “a state of readiness at all times moving forward.”

“This will give the Jail Operations the ability to use Building 20 as a contingency plan for emergency placement of inmates from both jails and expansion options due to overcrowding,” reads an internal memo sent by Sheriffs Department Chief of Operations Paul Oliva on Wednesday.

Crittle told The Independent that Oliva was addressing “a possible situation in the future.”

“The memo says ‘if needed’,” Crittle wrote. “It is unlikely we will need to reopen the building to inmates.”

Yet Oliva’s memo implies that the reopening of old Building 20 may be imminent.

“As you know, during the summer months our count rises and efforts are taking place in finding solutions to address the issue,” it reads. “The Inmate Management Unit is also being proactive by identifying potential levels of inmates that could be moved into this building and the…Operations Unit is taking steps in prepping the building for use with supplies and all necessary equipment.”

Crittle hedged Thursday when asked about Denver’s current jail population.

“The population changes hour to hour but we are not at capacity,” he wrote.

Asked again – and then again – he wouldn’t give a number.

Under former Sheriff Gary Wilson, the city had a practice of keeping its jails at or under 85 percent capacity. Anything over that level was considered overcrowded, making it difficult to strategically and safely house inmates based on their gender, gang affiliation and levels of crime.

But since March of this year, Sheriff Patrick Firman has been running the system well over that level, with a new cap of 92 to 93 percent. In a jail system notorious for mismanagement and killings, some familiar with the situation have likened it to a tinderbox.

Denver voters in 2003 approved a $378 million bond package to upgrade the city’s crowded and out-of-date criminal justice facilities. The $160 million Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center on West Colfax and the $25 million expansion of the county jail on Smith Road (behind which Building 20 sits) were designed to provide enough inmate capacity until at least 2035.

James Mejia – the justice center project manager at the time – said the hope was that efforts to reduce jail use would further extend the system’s capacity until 2050. That’s because, in response to early public concerns that a new downtown detention center and expansion of the Smith Road jail would jack up the inmate population, Hickenlooper in 2005 created the Crime Prevention and Control Commission specifically to curb jail use. Funded with at least $3 million a year, that group was supposed to use drug court, diversion programs, a community re-entry project and other sentencing alternatives to keep Denver’s inmate population from climbing.

“We made a commitment to the voters of Denver that we would increase our efforts to provide alternatives to incarceration,” said Mejia, who unsuccessfully challenged Hancock in the 2011 mayor’s race. “So, the fact that the jail is full is, uh, very discouraging at this point.”

The city officially attributes the spike in inmates to more felony arrests, rising female incarceration and general population growth.

Another factor, some say, is that about a year ago, Regina Huerter, Hancock’s appointee to lead the Crime Prevention and Control Commission, also took on the job of running the city’s Office of Behavioral Health Strategies. The commission’s focus shifted from criminal justice to mental health issues. Although mental health services for inmates have started being addressed, problems among the remaining 75 percent of prisoners – such as getting arrested for being homeless or being too poor to pay a warrant or bond out of jail – have gone mostly unheeded.

“There needs to be an increased sense of urgency by city officials to fix a broken system where we are going backwards, not forwards, in reducing the jail population,” said Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Latino Forum and an occasional blogger for The Independent. “We’re talking about the mass jailing of human beings, many of whom haven’t been convicted of anything, but will be held in substandard conditions. This is not the deal the politicians made with voters when they sold the bond as a way to provide a more humane jail system,” she said.

Some current and former members of the commission question why Hancock’s administration doesn’t curb its practice of holding inmates for other jurisdictions. And some question why none of the $24 million Hancock recently allocated for the Sheriffs Department is going toward reducing the jail population.

Given the inability of the commission to keep numbers down, a coalition of inmates’ rights advocates is gearing up to push for an accountability system to monitor the jail population. The monitor would operate much like the city’s auditor: as a check and balance to the administration.

“The city acknowledged a massive overpopulation problem when it decided to spend $24 million largely on new deputies rather than decrease the population. The best I can tell, the city made no real effort to look at the crowding problem when it decided to spend the money,” said Phil Cherner, a former member of the commission.

“We were promised when this jail was built that it was designed not to require any new deputies. That claim was fraudulent because now it’s just six years old and they have to hire millions of dollars in new deputies to keep it staffed. That’s crazy,” he added. “If they keep building beds, of course they will fill them. It’s really shameful. There needs to be oversight.”

In the meantime, the city is scrambling to ready Building 20, likely for inmates awaiting trial.

“This building has been empty for some time and its operational use has been deteriorating,” reads Oliva’s email.

Those familiar with the building say “deteriorating” is an understatement. The Cold War era lock-up lacks natural sunlight. Its floor plan is antiquated – designed without giving officers access to inmates’ pods to deescalate tensions. And it has had problems with plumbing, heating and cooling.

Hancock’s administration won’t say how it plans to pay to shuttle inmates back and forth between Smith Road in far northeast Denver and the downtown courthouse. As Mejia tells it, bussing cost about $500,000 a year about a decade ago – one of the reasons used to persuade voters to approve a new downtown detention center.

“Were we selling a bill of goods to the voters, or did the city change its trajectory?” Mejia asked about the decision to prepare Building 20 for a possible reopening. “My hope is that, instead, the city would increase emphasis on finding places for people to go other than jail.”


Photo credit: Allen Tian


  1. Denver voters were indeed mislead in 2003. The false promises and misleading assurances by a campaign made up of city officials and those who benefit from selling bonds and building pubic works were many. The opponent (of which I was one) said that if we build it, they would fill it. Empty jail beds don’t feed the government beast. As one of those who vocally opposed the measure in 2003, I say to Denver taxpayers who voted yes on this boondoggle, you got snookered.

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