Clogged toilets, floods and other ugly truths inside Denver's new jail

If on some crisp, fall afternoon you find yourself walking down a tree-lined avenue past a jailhouse, the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center is the one to see.

The exterior of the building is beaming with Indiana limestone to complement the nearby Denver Mint, and visitors are greeted with an epoxy resin terrazzo art floor designed by artist Garrison Roots.

But inside, staff and inmates at the new $159 million prison are dealing with some ugly truths.

"It's like when you build a new home and you find out that something didn't get put in, or you find a mistake on some kind of amenity," says Captain Frank Gale of the Denver County Sheriff's Department. "We have the same issues here, but on a much larger scale."

Much, much larger. For instance, unhappy inmates -- some of whom don't always behave as if they're grateful for the shiny new digs -- have been known to shove pillows or clothing down the toilets. But one of the sewage pipes servicing some of the building's 559 toilets is too small to accommodate these antics. That has caused clogging and overflow in a number of cells.

"You have to understand that it's a jail, so toilets are going to get clogged," Gale says, adding that repairs were made quickly.

Inmates -- the jail can hold up to 1,500 of them -- have also hammered on the sprinkler heads which, when knocked off the ceiling, resulted in considerable flooding. This has happened only a handful of times, Gale says -- although one former inmate told Westword it's been upward of thirty times. But with nearly 4,000 sprinkler heads situated throughout the building, Gale's team needed a quick and creative fix.

"We did a retro-fit on the valve so that it shuts off the water quicker if the sprinkler head is released for anything other than smoke or fire detection," he adds. The sprinkler heads are still within swinging reach of inmates, but the resulting water damage won't be nearly as extensive when they connect.

Inmates have even found ways to take advantage of those amenities that were installed specifically for their benefit. Every floor has a self-contained exercise yard with natural light and free-flowing fresh air. The light comes through a frosted window on the lower half of the wall and the air flows through a caged grill on the upper half.

"It's pretty high up, so if they're not standing on something, they won't be able to see out onto the street," Gale says, "It's secure; they can't get out. But the inmates were climbing up on each other's shoulders to look out of there."

They were also allegedly making catcalls to passersby on Delaware Street. The tone in Gale's voice upon divulging this information seemed to indicate that this kind of monkey business will not be tolerated.

But he is sympathetic to the plights of both the prisoners and his staff during the transition, and despite this awkward phase, he's confident that everyone will settle in.

"Things are flowing better and we're processing faster than we were, but we still want to do it even better. When you're in a new place, that's the best time to look at it."