Saguache County Jail aging gracefully

SAGUACHE — In dog years, the Saguache County Jail is 268. In Colorado, it’s the oldest jail in the state. Built in 1957, the building has a tiny floorplan for the Andy Griffith era when a few arrested suspects awaited legal proceedings and release or transfer.  

Today, the Saguache County Jail can only expand within itself. When they added a long-overdue office for deputies in the 1980s, they lost an exercise yard that inmates helped build years earlier. They also lost fresh airflow for one of the overcrowded cells. To provide ventilation now, Jail Commander Ken Wilson opens the outside door in the library next to the cell.

Enclosed by a cinder-block wall, the old exercise yard featured a Ping-Pong table, weights, and enough space for jumping rope and other activities. With the yard gone, walks through the streets surrounding the facility became the only option for exercise and fresh air. Out of necessity, inmates walk chained together with supervision, innocent until proven guilty but exposed to the community in orange suits, nonetheless.

Occupying the same space where the first sheriff and his family once lived, today’s department is more a function of people than it is an underfunded, undersized building. Sheriff Dan Warwick, Wilson, other staff members, and most of the inmates can easily hear each other through the walls and vents. The narrow hallways require more co-worker intimacy than most corporate offices allow. Despite regulations looser than the Department of Corrections requires (an eight-square-foot minimum per person), Wilson and inmates agree it’s too tight.

The jail has 21 beds. Wilson said they occasionally need floorspace to accommodate unusual situations. Sometimes they house inmates from other agencies, space permitting. But the building does not meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Wilson described a difficult evening when they had to transport a person in a wheelchair to another facility because the old jailhouse is not ADA-compliant.
The jail also lacks an intercom system, a secondary camera feed, and power doors. Locking some of the ancient doors requires a shoulder charge and key twist that would make NFL linemen proud. The nurse’s office used to be a storage closet.

Lacking resources, Wilson says the Sheriff’s Department thinks creatively to solve problems by changing methods when space must stay the same. For example, after six suicides in 63 years, new procedures patch problems that a new facility could solve all at once. Newly installed lights illuminate cells better now, microphones relay more detailed sound, and new cameras can capture more clarity in darkness. A new, significantly larger monitor provides 16 separate simultaneous feeds at a higher resolution than previous displays. Before, each camera view was smaller than a business card.

Another improvement leverages personnel. Sheriff Warwick said increased training and policy enhancements have clarified procedures for handling sensitive bookings. Staff members routinely revisit policies and refine processes when necessary. Perhaps the biggest asset for the Sheriff’s Office is consistent humanity for the inmates. Wilson and deputies address people with respect, and the routine walks around the building are conducted with dignity despite the obvious flight risk. The screen door that sneaks a breeze to inmates is no match for an escapee, and the chain-link fence outside it is an easy climb. The fence does not keep inmates inside. Its purpose is to prevent outsiders from delivering contraband.

Sheriff Warwick and Captain Wilson share the long view for building a new facility. Given limited funding options in Saguache County, the department previously pushed for the Public Safety Tax. Voters approved the 1.5% sales tax, which has funded some of the new equipment and procedures at the jail. Paying for new jail construction, however, requires more money and time.

Wasting no time, the department sought guidance and has already created floorplans, budgets and enhanced systems. If an estimated $10–20 million fell from the sky this week and landed in county coffers, construction could begin immediately.

Plans include indoor and outdoor exercise facilities that ensure inmate privacy. Expanded space will allow room for every individual, and maintenance and long-term strategies will extend the life of the building while providing guidance for future generations who might face a similar predicament if the facility no longer meets the needs of the county.

When Wilson provides a bed for an inmate from another agency, Saguache County receives payment. The Jail Commander originally estimated $3,500 in revenue from hosting other inmates this past year. Surprisingly, these beds yielded almost $50,000 instead. According to the new jail design, beds will accommodate between 50 and 75 people. However, this is not a revenue stream. This capacity could buffer the budget hit Saguache County takes today when 21 beds are full and taxpayers need to cover transport and payment to another agency.

Courtesy of the Public Safety Tax, the Sheriff’s Department has made other improvements without expanding space. For example, a new communication service supports voice calls, video calls and messaging for visits, and it saves money for Saguache County, inmates and families.
“You can get on the phone and say, ‘hey dad, how are you?’ and talk to them or do FaceTime,” Wilson explained. “That’s what Homewav does.”

Compared to driving from Saguache to Alamosa for a Skype session (the previous practice), calls from the jail are much more efficient now. For visitors, connecting over the phone saves gas money and travel time too.

Budget concerns always constrict decisions, and physical space limitations force even more restricted decision-making. Until a new building can accommodate changes that have been accumulating since 1957, the Sheriff’s Office has no choice but to continue adopting innovative ways to fulfill their mission for inmates, staff, and all of Saguache County.

Assuming voters approve jail construction at the end of 2021 and the first shovel does not hit the ground immediately after the polls close, the current building will celebrate a 277th dog-year birthday before calls about dog bites and all other county agency activities will transfer to a new facility where inmates and staff can share a safer, better place.

Jail Library-open door ventilation


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