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Fortress of Solitude

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.

"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.

"The nice thing here is that nobody ever sees prisoners," says Elise Cohen, Adams County's clerk of the court. "In the old building, they used the same door that the employees, the jurors and the public did."

Cohen says the public enjoys greater access to court records than before, since county and district files are now consolidated in one place. But if the file you're looking for happens to be checked out to a particular courtroom, there's no way to contact the clerk of that courtroom directly--there's no separate entrance to the clerk's office, and many of the courtrooms are locked when not in use. The search can entail paying a fee, hunting from floor to floor, making calls on wall phones to clerks hidden away in cubicles out of public view and, finally, being led back to an "employees only" area of the building to actually review the file.

Facilities chief Pat Myers, the project manager for the new justice center, says the building was finished under budget and on time--"We actually missed the completion date by eight hours"--and offers more amenities than even he expected. The view from the cafeteria courtyard takes in not only Barr Lake but a well-groomed, ballfield-sized expanse of grass planted behind the center.

"The particular thing I like about it is to go sit in that courtyard and look over that lawn to Barr Lake and feel relaxed," he says. "That's probably a good statement to make about a courthouse."

Yet the reason the grass is so immaculate is that there's no access to it. It's entirely fenced in, a look-but-don't-touch accessory. Like the new justice centers, that green space may look inviting from afar, but just try to use it.


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