As the two women hit and kicked him, Deputy Stan Marin struggled to keep a grip on his prisoner. It was the second time this year he'd had to fight a would-be escapee in the halls of Denver's City and County Building. And this time he was losing.
"I was thinking, `Where is my backup?'" Marin recalls of the altercation three weeks ago. "I could hold on another minute, but that was about it. Backup never came. No one was here."
Seconds earlier, the twenty-year-old prisoner had been convicted of first-degree aggravated assault in a fourth-floor courtroom. As the verdict was read, he seemed to become ill. The judge ordered Marin to take the prisoner to the jury room, where he could throw up. Instead, the prisoner bolted from the courtroom into the hall. He was heading toward the stairs when Marin tackled him.
Just as Marin got the situation under control, two female friends of the prisoner jumped the deputy from behind. The prisoner broke free and headed down the stairs. The women continued to beat on Marin.
"You know who finally came to my aid? Two city councilmen and a city administrator," Marin says.
Councilmen Dave Doering and Tim Sandos and Denver City Council staff director John Bennett helped get the fighting females off Marin. "These women were just so full of emotion," Bennett remembers. "They were just acting wild. They were hard to control."
When Marin's sergeant showed up, the deputy gave him custody of the woman he'd managed to handcuff and took off after his prisoner. In the end, two Denver police officers, who noticed the man running, captured the escapee in the 200 block of 16th Street.
"You hear people who are distraught all the time on that side of the courthouse," says Councilman Sandos. "I thought that was what was happening until I saw the women pulling on the sheriff."
This wasn't the first time Bennett had raced to the rescue, either. Back in June he helped a deputy stop a man who was kicking a woman in the head.
"These aren't the only two that I know of; these are just the ones I've been involved in," Bennett says. "I think we have a real dangerous situation here."
The day after he came to Marin's aid, Bennett called his staff together. "My worst fear is that one of them might be taken hostage," he explains. "I told them I didn't want to see them peeking their heads out in the hallway to see what's going on. I showed them an office that's away from the hallway and told them when there's trouble to go in there and lock the door."
That prisoners are passing by Denver City Council offices at all is due to the dual nature of Denver's City and County Building. Over 80 percent of the facility is devoted to Denver's city and county courts, and the rest serves as City Hall, home to city council as well as the mayor and other public officials.
The two functions can sometimes seem incompatible: While many cities' courthouses have built-in tunnels or separate hallways for prisoners, in Denver deputies wind up escorting prisoners through public halls that are often as long as a city block. It's a setup that leaves deputies open to attack--from people enraged when they see their loved one being led away to prison, from the parents of a murdered child who would like to wreak their own justice on the prisoner, or from the prisoners themselves.
In an incident last year, a prisoner made a fist with his cuffed hands and struck a female deputy in the face. During the ensuing struggle, the man was able to get his hands on the deputy's gun, but she managed to regain control.
Judge Paul A. Markson, Jr., Denver's presiding judge in the criminal division, calls the City and County Building a "tinderbox" and says he wants action now. "People have a right to come into this building and be safe," he says. "This is a community building. People come here to get their marriage licenses. Juries are here only because they are summoned. There is a very serious potential here for injury or death."
Denver sheriff's captain Vic Lombardi, who heads security at the City and County Building, doesn't flinch at Markson's harsh words. "We're doing the best we can with what we've got," Lombardi says.
In the past two years 100 deputies have been added to the department's 650-person staff. But 90 percent of those deputies have gone to the county jail, where prisoner overcrowding is a major problem, according to Fidel "Butch" Montoya, Denver's manager of safety.
In 1993 the sheriff's budget was supplemented by $3 million to pay for overtime. "The sheriff's department is the fastest growing department in the city," Montoya says.
But it may not be growing fast enough. Over the last four years the number of prisoners handled by Lombardi's department has increased by about 6,000 annually. From 1992 to 1993 alone, the load jumped from 78,576 to 88,211 prisoners. At the same time, the number of deputies assigned to the security detail has remained a constant 30.
Even as the number of prisoners increases, so does their level of aggression. "I think it's changed in the last five years," says division chief Stephen Comito. "It's really a reflection of society. The more dangerous it is out there, the more dangerous it is in here."
For example, Lombardi says, he frequently worries about gang members fighting in the halls. "On gang trials, I'll go down and check out the situation myself," he adds. "If there are a lot of rival gang members or family members from each side, I'll beef up the security."
But Lombardi also says it's difficult to evaluate the risks involved in each trial because of time constraints. Often he depends on the judge, district attorney or someone else involved in the case to inform him of extra security needs.
Adding to Lombardi's problems is the design of the 62-year-old City and County Building. Its architects clearly didn't anticipate today's security needs: The old freight elevator can be used to isolate prisoners while transporting them between floors, but after that they must walk down crowded public hallways.
Given the conditions, deputies say they're courting disaster when they transport prisoners. A few examples:
On June 20 a 22-year-old man who had just been found guilty bolted from the courtroom. As he attempted to board an elevator on the fourth floor, Deputy D.S. Kielar jumped him. After he was handcuffed, the man continued to kick. Kielar suffered a broken blood vessel.
On July 1 on the first floor, a girl attempted to kiss a juvenile boy as a deputy was taking him to court. The prisoner became enraged when the deputy intervened and began to spit at the deputy. The youth was taken back to the sheriff's holding tanks on the building's fourth floor. There were no injuries.
On August 4 a judge ordered a spectator arrested after he began to yell during a trial. The spectator ran; an officer chased and captured him. The officer's right cheek and knee were bruised. The spectator was not injured.
On September 26 a prisoner removed his leg irons after he pretended to drop his paperwork while walking from an interview room to a courtroom. He then ran through a locked glass door on the west side of the building and headed up Colfax. A deputy and a Denver police officer caught him a few minutes later in an alley near Tremont and Court Place. The prisoner was treated for cuts on his hand and head.
"The danger is so significant that we can't wait any longer," Markson says. "Something has to be done."
On a recent Monday Lombardi starts his day in a typical fashion: a cup of coffee, 120 prisoners and seven people out sick, on vacation or on other duties. He calls the city jail and begs them to send over a deputy to help out. "It's not easy to get them to do that," he says. "They're short-handed, too."
At 7:30 a.m. three juveniles arrive from Denver's Gilliam Youth Center. Of Lombardi's nine holding tanks on the fourth floor of the City and County Building, one will have to go to these kids. "By law, we're supposed to have them out of sound and sight," Lombardi says. "But the best we can do is give them their own cell. As you can see, they're not out of sound or sight."
When a middle-aged man wheeling an oxygen tank comes through the door next, Lombardi sighs. "You're back again?" he asks the man, who has come from the jail's unit at Denver General Hospital. "He takes over the female juvenile cell," Lombardi says. "You can't put someone with oxygen in a cell with the others; they'll do something to mess it up. I'm going to have to set my juvenile females out here on the benches."
With two of his three front cells taken, Lombardi inspects the six smaller ones in back. Even though the area has been sitting empty over the weekend, the smell of body odor is strong. Five portable fans offer the only ventilation in the room. "In the summer it's 110 degrees in here," he says.
Because of the prisoners with special restrictions who must have their own cells--those in protective custody, male juveniles, female juveniles, adult females and the man on oxygen--Lombardi says he'll have to cram 100 prisoners in four cells built to hold ten people each.
A deputy radios in that the first load of prisoners from the county jail on Smith Road will be twenty minutes late. Everyone reaches for another cup of coffee.
"I try not to let the stress bother me," says Deputy Ralph Varela, a three-year veteran of the sheriff's department. "You have to handle people who don't have anything to lose, and a lot of times you're outnumbered."
Like most of the deputies, Varela has a story to tell. "In courtroom 12, this inmate who'd just gotten sentenced to life, he turned and looked at us and said, `I've killed three officers, and I can kill more.' He started running at me. I tackled him and we wrestled. The judge said he saw him grab for my gun. I didn't know, but it [the gun] ended up ten feet away. When I looked down and saw that gun gone, my heart sank."
At 8 a.m. the first bus carrying fifty prisoners comes in. The coffee breaks are over. Five deputies go down to the first floor, where the bus pulls up near the mayor's garage.
That space was once used to load and unload prisoners, but about twenty years ago it was turned into a garage for the mayor, according to John Hall, Denver's public-office-buildings director. "It was an executive decision," he says. "I don't see a problem with it."
As a result of the switch, though, arriving prisoners are penned by no more than a chain-link fence secured with a crooked metal bar. That, and two sheriff's deputies with shotguns. "We used to have trouble with people going under the bus," explains one deputy. "That's why we have the shotguns."
By 8:15 a.m. the holding tanks look full, although two more buses have yet to arrive. In the meantime, deputies who've picked up prisoners at jails throughout the state start trickling in. Two remands--people who were out on bond but have been ordered back into custody--are being questioned and searched in preparation for jail booking. "We'll have twenty of those by the end of the day," Lombardi says.
Court starts in fifteen minutes, and a dozen deputies are shuffling through the paperwork. They are responsible for taking all 120 prisoners to and from courtrooms.
Deputy N. Clark has responsibility for twenty prisoners due in drug court. "I'll try to take those who need an interpreter, those with a writ bond and those with private attorneys first," she says.
Drug court, a new court set aside exclusively for drug charges, and the courtroom that handles most of the domestic-violence restraining orders each have the luxury of a full-time deputy assigned to them.
For Clark, the trips through the City and County Building's crowded hallways are the worst part of the job. "You're walking down the hall, and you don't know who all these people are around you," she says. "They could be family members or anybody. You don't know."
At 8:40 a.m. Lombardi stops to give some direction to the deputy that the nearby city jail was kind enough to loan. He's never worked here before. Lombardi gives him a sixty-second lesson and sends him on duty.
At 9 a.m. Lombardi is talking to his sergeant about a problem. "I got a bus of prisoners parked in the middle of the street because there's a police car in the unloading area," he says. "There's just not enough parking lot."
All they can do, he suggests, is look for the officer who parked the car there. Five minutes later he's handling another crisis. "The only person available to respond to alarms right now is me," he says. "I've got a pager."
Lombardi's department answers panic alarms from all of the courtrooms and also many of the city offices in the building.
At 10 a.m. a judge calls and asks that a sixteen-year-old rape victim and her family be escorted to their car. They've been at a gang-rape trial where one of the suspects was found guilty; his family is threatening the girl. "This happens all the time," Lombardi says. "You just have to walk them to their car and make sure they get in safe. This is what I do all day--react to situations with what I have and not get anyone hurt. That's the name of the game."
The deputy walks them outside without incident but the family is still upset. They have to return Thursday for another hearing.
Back on the fourth floor, a deputy is cursing a judge under his breath. "He wants to know why his prisoner isn't there on time," the deputy says. "I told the judge he wasn't brought in. He says he wants answers."
The deputy looks at his sergeant, obviously flustered. "You can only do so much, you know," he says.
The sergeant offers him nothing more than a shrug. "We're the ones who get blamed for everything," he replies.
As the morning passes, prisoners are cuffed, uncuffed, put away, led through the fourth-floor gate to the district courts or loaded onto the elevator for other courts. The most dreaded trip is to the first floor, where crowds are thick with citizens milling about doing their business at City Hall. This is also the juvenile-court floor, so gang members are often waiting for hearings.
By now the holding tanks are so packed that the general-population prisoners are standing-room-only and literally squashed against one another. "I like to get them out of here as fast as I can," Lombardi says.
By 11 a.m. the deputies are counting how many prisoners have completed their court date and how many more must be kept and fed lunches from the city jail across the street. Eighty prisoners are ready to go. The deputies take them out the same way they came in, six at a time in a cramped elevator to the first floor, then down a desolate hallway and into the small chain-link-fence loading area.
Half an hour later only forty prisoners are in the tanks. The deputies begin feeding them and then start to take their own lunch breaks.
When they return, they'll do it all over again. Seventy-five prisoners are scheduled on the afternoon docket.
All the while, just a few feet away in an adjoining room, Deputy Rita Roe is sitting at her video terminals. Some screens contain images of empty chairs at the county jail waiting to be filled by prisoners; others focus on courtrooms waiting for judges. But most are blank or filled with color bars.
This is the $1.1 million system approved in 1986 and designed to unburden the chaotic operation taking place next door. If nothing else, having prisoners make their first court appearance via video would save the 34-mile round trip from the county jail to City Hall and back again.
But the people who pushed for the video system are no longer with the city, and the company that installed it has gone out of business. The equipment itself has not been updated since 1988, Roe says, and it badly needs an overhaul.
Roe does about a dozen video court hearings a day, along with a few probation evaluations. "When the system first got set up, everybody wanted to make it work," she says. "Now, nobody is paying attention to this system anymore. I don't get the proper maintenance done on it, so it doesn't work right.
"I know they're busy in there. I know they must be thinking that they're wasting a deputy."
Out of all the prisoners being shuffled in and out of the holding tanks next door, few really need to be there, Roe says. "Probably, three of them might start trial," she notes. "The majority of them can be done on video. I truly think this could be the answer to our problem."
Division chief Comito also still has hopes for the system. "I think technology could help us," he says. "I think we could minimize a lot of the transportation problems by increased use. Part of the problem is reliability. The courts have to be confident it's going to work."
So do other people. "The public defenders don't like it, the judges don't like it, and we need to sit down and address that," says safety manager Montoya. "I think that's why it failed before--because we didn't sit down and figure out what the problem was."
Judge Larry L. Bohning, Denver's outgoing presiding county judge, sees the video system as a possible solution for the current security problems. "I would like to see the courts use the closed circuit more, but it's like computers--it takes time to get used to it," he says. "Some defense attorneys have been resistant, and it's up to the individual judges on whether they want to use it."
Bohning himself doesn't use it; he primarily conducts probable-cause hearings that by law can't be done via video, he says.
For the past decade in Dade County, Florida, first-appearance court hearings have been conducted on closed-circuit television, according to Ruben Carrerou, executive assistant to the district's chief judge. About 200 first-appearance hearings are conducted on the system each day.
"It saves a great deal of money," says Carrerou, who helped set up the system. "You don't have to move people long distances, you don't have to tie up sheriff's officers, things move faster in the courtroom and therefore you save judicial time. The money savings is across the board."
In Florida, too, people initially opposed the concept. "The public defenders felt that the judges would not be looking eye-to-eye with the defendant so they would not get the personal effect," Carrerou says. Life-sized video screens helped resolve some of those concerns, and now the public defenders use the system to take depositions in their offices. "As soon as we put that in effect, it was a hit," he adds.
But Cynthia Camp, a spokeswoman with the Colorado State Public Defender's Office in Denver, says that while she might accept closed circuit for first-appearance hearings, she would prefer the system not be installed in any form. "I've been in courtrooms where they've tried the system, and if you could have seen the confused look on the client's face, you wouldn't think much of it," she says. "Our clients are not very trusting of the system, anyway."
The video setup can so hamper communication with a client that it interferes with the hearing, Camp adds. "Sometimes a client whispers something to you or sometimes you just get a feel that they're confused," she says. "You would lose all of that. And these are felony charges--they really affect your life."
Bob Schubring, program administrator with the city's Communication and Utilities department, says the biggest problem with the closed-circuit system is the audio; the courtrooms are so large they create a sound loop. "I can make it work," he says. "It just needs to be tweaked. People think it should work right out of the box. It's not going to be that way."
There have, of course, been other technological innovations at the City and County Building. Metal detectors and X-ray machines were added in 1987, and the spillover courtrooms housed in the nearby Radisson Hotel Annex are scheduled to get that same security system early in the new year.
There are plans to add to security staff, as well. Four additional deputies from the upcoming graduating class are scheduled to start patrolling the halls. "They won't have any other duties," says Comito.
"In my opinion, four is not enough," counters Bennett, who watches the daily parade of prisoners from his fourth-floor council office. "Because of vacation days, sick time and other leave, you'd probably only have three at any one time. I don't think four could patrol a building this large and open and ensure proper safety."
The 1995 budget also includes money to add nine more holding tanks, Comito says, but prisoner overcrowding is so bad that those tanks will be filled as soon as they're built.
Some critics suggest that rather than focus on these patchwork fixes, the city should build a new courthouse. "It's a perfect time to be talking about it," says Judge Markson. "There will be plenty of room at Stapleton." Besides, the old airport is just one convenient I-70 exit away from the county jail.
But since the city's plate is already full of projects--including a new airport that's busting its budget--the idea of building another courthouse isn't something that Denver officials have discussed very seriously.
Councilman Sandos, who chairs the city council's safety committee, says the last time he recalls investigating that possibility was in 1989. "We wanted to take the courts out of the City and County Building and create a true city and county building," he remembers. "It was real expensive--$50 million to $75 million. It was more expensive than we could handle with everything we had going on at the time."
But according to Markson, Denver can't afford not to fix the situation. "I don't want to wait until someone is killed," he says. "So far, Denver has been lucky."
Sandos says he would like to hear Markson's views in committee. "Personally, I was concerned seeing that one deputy in a struggle by himself," he says. "So much so that I felt the need to get involved. If this is an issue that is causing a lot of concern, I want to talk about it.
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