Fortress of Solitude

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

"It does create a somewhat impersonal situation," Denes concedes. "We're trying really hard to mitigate that, but some of it's built into the design."

The security features are most prominent, of course, in the new detention center. The county's old jail had only 31 cells, which resulted in a dangerously overcrowded situation every weekend. The new one has 192 cells; the county figures that with double-bunking and future expansion plans, the center will be able to accommodate up to 600 inmates at one time, including the spillover from neighboring counties. The first prisoners are expected to arrive later this month. They will be housed in metal-and-concrete pods, virtually all of their movements monitored and controlled by officers in the central control booth.

Denes stresses the "convenience" of the new arrangement. Prisoners with court dates will be escorted down a long, subterranean corridor to elevators leading to the courtrooms. "This way, inmates never have to pass through public areas," he says. "We considered that a huge public safety threat."

Others may not have to be moved at all; the new detention center will be able to offer video arraignment, which represents a "big savings manpower-wise as well as security-wise," Denes adds.

The new jail has more extensive medical facilities for inmates, including an on-site dental office and a special isolation unit for inmates with HIV, tuberculosis or other infectious diseases, which will keep them from sharing even the same air supply with other offenders. It also features special "rubber rooms" and maximum-security, 23-hour-a-day lockdown units for hard customers.

More compliant inmates will be assigned to minimum-security pods with what Denes calls "more of a dorm-room feeling." They'll be issued keys to their own cells (to minimize pilferage while they're in the exercise yard) and have the use of porcelain toilets rather than the standard stainless-steel equipment. But the amenities are all tied to continued good behavior, and even model prisoners are expected to shower in curtainless stalls in the middle of the pods, in full view of cameras and deputies, with only a small door shielding their private parts.

When asked about the advisability of having male officers supervising female inmates' showers--and female officers supervising males--Denes shrugs. "These were designed with security rather than privacy in mind," he says. "It eliminates a lot of the monkey business that used to go on in the closed showers."

Most courthouse visitors won't have occasion to ponder such monkey business, but they may find that transacting even routine county business can be less convenient in the new justice center. To obtain a public court file, a visitor must first pay a five-dollar search fee to obtain the file number (an increasingly standard "research charge" in suburban courthouses) and surrender a driver's license. Only then will a clerk slide the file through the narrow space under the glass partition--provided, of course, that it fits. If not, a clerk may be forced to breach security by opening a door and actually handing the file to a customer.

Bobbi Griffin, the Douglas County clerk of the court, says she hasn't received much feedback from the public about the new center. She does think the place has many advantages, though, including the video monitors that list the day's cases and the increased parking. The procedure for obtaining files may be frustrating to some, she adds, but it's the best way to ensure that people don't simply walk off with the records.

"We're still trying out the building," Griffin says. "Our plan is to give it six months before we make any adjustments. Security was obviously the big thrust, but I don't think we're compromising public access."

The Adams County Justice Center has no fancy detention center, just a few holding cells for prisoners awaiting trial. Otherwise, it has much in common with the Douglas complex. It, too, was financed with a half-cent sales tax and replaces an aged complex--known as the "Doughnut of Justice" because of its Jetson-era circular design--that had outlived its usefulness. And like its neighbor to the south, it's designed to keep the public, prisoners and courthouse workers separated from one another as thoroughly as possible.

The six-story building sits on the edge of the plains, across I-76 from Barr Lake, in a largely undeveloped area that's expected to become Brighton's teeming town center in a few years. The county has added "scissors" to the list of prohibited weapons and has its own ideas of bad public art--in this case, a bronze entitled "Called to Jury Duty," featuring a dazed, multicultural panel of six trapped in an undersized jury box, blighting an otherwise fine courtyard and a pleasant view of the lake--but its internal configuration is its real genius. While visitors wander the largely deserted public corridors, marveling at the slate tiles and marble wainscoting, most of the county's judicial business is being conducted behind glass walls and locked doors, in the hidden heart of the place.

Prisoners are whisked into court through one secret pathway, judges through another. The employees have their own parking lot, and most use a separate entrance to the building; no one has to rub shoulders with the great unwashed.

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