A city surveillance video puts a new face on the problem of increasing violence at Denver’s overcrowded jail.
The footage below shows a housing pod on the fifth floor of city’s detention facility last Tuesday, March 21st. At the top of the screen, Denver Sheriff’s Deputy James Thompson can be seen seated at a desk when an inmate, Rafael Cordero, walked up and attacked him.
Thompson reportedly was the only deputy on duty in the pod housing about 60 inmates when Cordero jumped him at about 5:20 p.m. Thompson managed to free himself from the headlock and restrain Cordero by the time other deputies were alerted by inmates and came to Thompson’s aid.
Cordero, 26, is being charged with two counts of second-degree assault.
Pods housing 60 or more inmates often are overseen by a single sheriff’s deputy – a practice that’s drawing increasing complaints from inmates, city watchdogs and deputies.
“That is way too many inmates for one officer to handle on any given day. This is the end result of overcrowding,” said Deputy Mike Britton, vice president of Denver’s sheriff’s union local. “There are two paramount issues that (Safety Director Stephanie) O’Malley and our administration are ignoring: Safety to our officers and to those that we are entrusted to care for – the inmates.”
The Independent has been seeking videotape of Thompson’s attack and asking Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration for comment about the incident since late last week. The city agreed this morning to release the footage to The Independent, but hasn’t commented on it as of this posting.
Denver’s downtown jail opened in 2010, designed to serve the city’s needs at least until 2035. But it has been approaching capacity for more than two years. City records show that the 2016 daily average headcount within the county jail and the downtown detention facility was a combined 2,221 inmates, 95 percent of capacity.
Given the lack of beds, inmates regularly are forced to sleep on the floor. And deputies are required to work overtime that they say leaves them emotionally drained and physically exhausted.
The city cites the growing inmate population combined with an increase in mental health and substance abuse challenges among inmates as causes for the violence.
In that context, Cordero’s assault on Thompson wasn’t uncommon. Inmate-on-staff assaults have jumped 620 percent since 2011 and spiked dramatically in the past two years. Data also show that fights between inmates have increased 784 percent since 2011 – again, with significant increases since 2015.
Documents obtained by The Independent show there have been at least several other assaults on jail staff so far this month.
One, on March 2nd, involved an inmate named Russell Darby allegedly rubbing his genitals against the backside of a female substance abuse counselor. He’s being charged with unlawful sexual misconduct.
On March 17, a potentially suicidal inmate being removed from his cell reportedly threw a mattress at one deputy and punched several others during a messy altercation on his cell floor, which was flooded after officials say he intentionally stopped up his toilet.
On March 23, an inmate named Joseph Joyce reportedly threw several punches at a deputy sheriff in a dressing area outside of a shower room. Also that day, deputies working intake took custody of inmate Steven Albritton from Denver police. Upon patting Albritton down in the presence of the police officers, deputies found a steak knife, a box cutter and what appeared to be a crack pipe under his pants.
A Sheriff’s Department briefing document from March 11 shows a string of unrelated violent incidents and threat of violence in a period of nine hours starting at 1:15 a.m. First, there was a fight between two inmates, then another inmate threatening a clerk, then two other inmates reportedly threatening deputies, then an inmate intentionally flooded his cell by blocking his toilet, then one inmate punched another in the face, then another fight broke out between two other inmates, then an inmate cut his hand, then another fight erupted between two inmates.
A recent city report, obtained by The Independent, showed that, overwhelmingly, deputies feel the Sheriff’s Department lacks leadership, trains them inadequately, and keeps its jails dangerously overcrowded.
Mug shot of Rafael Cordero provided by the Denver District Attorney’s office.