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Jailbait

Denver's entire law-enforcement community seems to think we need a bigger house. But a few holdouts say that first we need wiser law enforcement

Every inmate in the Denver County Jail wants to get to 22. As director of jails John Simonet walks through the cell blocks, he's stopped several times by convicts begging to move.

"I gotta get down to the deuce-deuce," says one convict being held in a tank with fifty other inmates. There's a touch of desperation in his voice.

Pod 22 is the newest housing unit in the county facility at Smith Road and Havana. In the eight-year-old pod, every inmate gets his own seventy-square-foot cell with a porcelain toilet and a slit of a window to let in the sunlight. The pod's 198 cells are arranged around a central day room with card tables, and the inmates have easy access to covered outdoor basketball courts. There's even an acupuncture center.

It's easy to see why the prisoners want to get transferred into the new unit. In the rest of the jail, inmates are living cheek by jowl. In 1997 the estimated daily average inmate population was 2,213--that's 705 more people than the jail was designed to hold. In the "dorms" of Building 9, about 55 inmates are locked up inside one large cell. The cage is ringed by a catwalk manned by one sheriff's deputy. Toboggan-like "boats" on the floor are beds for newcomers.

Simonet continues on toward Building 21, the wing housing the jail's 214 female prisoners; when six burly guards rush by to break up a fight, he presses himself against the wall to make way. The female inmates are housed in four large dorms, as in the men's Building 9. As a pair of guards lead a sobbing woman with a split lip out of the wing, other inmates hang on to the cell bars, yelling at each other across the small guard station that divides the four dorms.

In other cell blocks, rows of dank, double-bunked cells face TVs mounted on the opposite wall. There aren't any light switches in these cells, just little silver knobs with which a prisoner can turn the cell from dark to dim. The place sounds like an aviary. Locked down for most of the day, the prisoners bounce their voices off the brick walls and back to other prisoners a few cells away. Simonet explains that these cell blocks were constructed back in the Fifties in the "linear" style. The biggest problem, aside from their age, he says, is that guards posted in the cage above the entrance to the cell block can't see what's going on in the cells at the end of the block.

"This place was state of the art in 1950," Simonet says above the din, "but it's a dinosaur now."

Simonet and virtually every other law-enforcement official in the city--from the district attorney to the judges to the sheriffs working at the jail--believe that a new, multi-million-dollar, 3,000-plus capacity jail is the answer to the overcrowding problem.

To get this message out in hopes of generating support for the new facility, the city organized a task force last spring to examine the overcrowding problem. One plan that would have put a new jail in an industrial area between I-25 and Sixth Avenue was headed for the November ballot. But according to Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, the neighbors "pitched a fit." Since then, the task force has decided on a preliminary plan that calls for Denver to spend its $30 million budget surplus on what city finance director Andrew Wallach describes as a "down payment" on construction at a still-undetermined site (the rest of the cost would be financed year to year). Final numbers are still being crunched, but Wallach estimates that the new high-rise facility will end up costing about $85 million.

City officials on the task force came to the almost pre-ordained conclusion that a new jail would solve the overcrowding problem. But two Washington, D.C.-based criminal-justice consultants the city hired to study the issue determined otherwise.

"You could build a new jail with 3,300 beds and it'd be full when it opens," says one of the consultants, Mark Cunniff of the National Association of Criminal Justice Planners (NACJP). "And if you fill 3,300 beds, you've got three times the [jail] incarceration rate per capita of cities like L.A. and New York.

The consultants visited Denver three times, twice sent here by the National Institute of Corrections and the third time at the request of Denver city officials. The city paid the consultants $55,000 for their subsequent report, which was based on a four-month study and came to a conclusion that local authorities didn't want to hear.

"In order to solve the overcrowding problem, you've got to look at who's being locked up," Cunniff says. "Hey, if they looked at the entire jail population and it turned out that the majority of the people in there fit the predatory-criminal profile, then pour the cement and start building. But if you look at the people locked up in Denver, you'll see that they don't fit that profile."

The task-force study backs up Cunniff on that point. Of those arrested in Denver, only 7.1 percent are picked up for felony offenses, and criminals convicted of a felony offense make up only 15.5 percent of the jail population. Cunniff's report also points out that while Denver's population rate has stayed flat and its crime rate has decreased in recent years, arrests increased 5 percent annually between 1995 and 1997, especially in three categories: felony drug offenses, felony detainers (in which one jurisdiction holds a fugitive for another jurisdiction) and misdemeanor traffic violations.

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