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Fortress of Solitude

Two new county justice centers are high-tech, high-security--and designed to keep prisoners and the public in their place.

For the moment, Sergeant Attila Denes of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office is a prisoner of his own department's top-notch security. He waves gamely through the glass of the county jail's medical center, trying to signal the deputies in an electronic control booth eight feet away to open the door. The almost-completed jail is the showcase of Douglas County's imposing new judicial complex, but frequent tours and ongoing construction have placed heavy demands on the door operators' attention.

After a couple of minutes of waiting and waving, Denes goes in search of a phone so he can call the booth. Before he finds one, the door finally buzzes open. Denes sighs.

"This will not be a bad facility to work in," he says, "if you can get used to waiting for the doors to open."

As courthouses go, the $45 million Robert A. Christensen Justice Center, located next to I-25 south of the Castle Rock factory outlet stores and open for business since June, does seem like a nice place to work. So does the $27 million Adams County Justice Center in Brighton, which opened its doors in April. Both buildings are gleaming giants that boast the latest in technological innovation and security; both replace worn-out, strained-to-capacity judicial centers that couldn't keep up with the metro area's burgeoning growth.

But the most striking aspect of the two justice centers is their ruthlessly hierarchical sense of design. Judges, courthouse staff and law-enforcement officers have their own separate entrances, elevators and offices far removed from public view. Public access to the complexes is so strictly controlled that the average citizen almost never comes into direct contact with county employees, who work behind glass partitions and locked doors, protected by video surveillance monitors and anti-terrorist features. And aside from their court appearances, prisoners are practically invisible, stowed out of sight in the bowels of the facilities.

County officials say that similar design concepts are part of an unfortunate trend in American life, in which many public buildings have become armed camps. The recent rampage at the U.S. Capitol, which left two police officers dead, is only the latest reminder of the need to control public access to such facilities, they say. But metro-area courthouses have been tightening security ever since the mid-1980s, when Aurora cop Gerald Utesch shot his wife's divorce attorney, Jeanne Elliott, in a crowded Arapahoe County courtroom.

"I think this is pretty much the way these places are being designed now," says Pat Myers, facility manager for Adams County. "They're thinking more about courthouse security. But that's absolutely the only reason. It wasn't because we don't want to deal with the public."

Yet the new justice centers embody a degree of security not seen in Colorado before, not even during the federal trial of Timothy McVeigh. They're a statement of our times: public places that aren't very public at all.

Of the two, Douglas County's new center--with its 900 locking doors, 92 closed-circuit cameras and 345 intercoms--may be the best example of the fin de siecle architecture of paranoia. The 284,000-square-foot complex replaces a much smaller courthouse that was rushed into completion in 1979, after its predecessor was destroyed by an arson fire.

"Almost immediately with the growth of Highlands Ranch, that building became inadequate," notes Sergeant Denes. The county had to spread its dispatch services, coroner's office and even its prisoners among several locations, including modular buildings, before obtaining a half-cent sales tax to fund the new center, which Denes says was constructed with the goals of "security, safety and efficiency at a reasonable cost."

The new building isn't a Taj Mahal--the nickname for the lavish Jefferson County complex that triggered a taxpayer revolt a few years ago--but it isn't a tourist welcome center, either. Outside is the usual sign prohibiting drugs, knives, explosives, gases and martial arts weapons, but judging from all the non-smoking signs posted on pylons (which also serve to thwart any truck bombers from driving into the lobby), Douglas County is particularly keen about keeping out drugs that emit gases. Smokers are directed to a kind of gravel pit at some distance from the building, near a bronze statue of a heroic figure who appears to be on the verge of driving a railroad spike into his thigh.

Inside, the private security guards who man the metal detectors and X-ray machines are eager not to let the smallest pen-knife slip through. Sheriff's deputies roam the halls with earpieces hooked to shoulder-harnessed walkie-talkies, Secret Service-style. The courtrooms are hushed tombs of dark wood and muted lighting. The judge's bench is a highly elevated, almost celestial perch, well-buttressed from the rabble below. Records clerks dispense files from behind walls of glass.

Non-public areas of the building are accessible only by use of a magnetic card; card readers record the identity of the user and the time of entry. For the first time, the 243-member sheriff's department has its own break room, weight room (the weights were paid for out of private funds, Denes notes), briefing room, a state-of-the-art crime lab, a sophisticated communications system (not quite fully operational yet) and a well-appointed "vehicle examination bay," in which cars can be dismantled in the search for drugs or other contraband. All of these innovations should make the sheriff's office more efficient, Denes explains, even if the multiple security systems give the impression that the department is more aloof, wrapped in its own gadgetry, than ever before.

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