Female Inmates in Denver May Finally Get Building With “Humane Environment”

An exterior look at Denver County Jail.
An exterior look at Denver County Jail.
It’s no secret that Denver County Jail hasn't been a happy place for women over the past few years. In two combined lawsuits the city recently settled for $1.55 million, fifteen female deputies alleged that they faced dangerous working conditions including “severe and unwelcome sexual harassment” at the jail. Another lawsuit revealed that in 2018, a woman had given birth completely unassisted while jailed there. Following the public vitriol related to those incidents and other scandals, Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman stepped down, to be replaced by interim Sheriff Frances Gomez, who will be the first woman to lead the department.

Advocates have long been working toward another way to improve conditions for women, both inmates and deputies. One of these efforts is the renovation of Building 24 at the county jail on Smith Road, which will serve as the new complex for female inmates, who make up about a quarter of the jail’s total bookings. Building 24, a “gender-responsive” facility, is supposed to fulfill the standard of “accomplish[ing] a humane environment for the inmates,” according to a web page description by Wold, the architecture firm that is building it. However, its completion has been repeatedly delayed.

“We were originally hoping to have it done last year. We have had some pretty significant delays with the building,” outgoing Sheriff Firman told city council members at a Department of Safety budget hearing on Tuesday, September 17, sparking more questions about what, exactly, was going on with the project.

The sheriff’s department originally requested funding for the project in 2015 and got $4 million in 2016. It was supposed to be completed that year, the Denver Post reported, but that deadline has kept silently creeping back. A $763,000 line item in the city’s 2018 budget indicated that the construction would be completed in 2018; the sheriff’s department’s 2018 annual report then projected that it would be complete in spring of 2019. Yet it remains under construction.

Nancy Kuhn, a spokesperson for Denver Public Works, which managed the project, explained in an email to Westword, “Meeting code requirements for life safety in the correctional facility were more complex than we anticipated, and we made some design adjustments along the way to tailor the finished project to best address how the space was to be utilized by DSD."

According to Kuhn, it will undergo final inspection next month.

“This is going to be the first time that women are getting what they have been asking for for years, and it’s supposed to address a lot of the issues that were in that litigation,” says Lisa Calderón. The former mayoral candidate turned chief of staff for Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca was involved in pushing for a new women's facility when she ran the Community Re-Entry Project.

Most of Denver County Jail’s female inmates are housed in large pods in Building 21, which was designed as a traditional men's jail: urinals in the bathrooms, bunk beds. One of the deputies’ lawsuits alleges that the facility “is overcrowded, inadequately staffed and is unreasonably hazardous to deputies and prisoners alike. … Violent prisoners are mixed with non-violent prisoners. The behaviorally defiant are mixed with the behaviorally compliant. These conditions increase the hardships upon the female deputies who must protect both themselves and the prisoners under their charge.”

According to Wold, Building 24's "design focuses on rehabilitation for women whose crime is typically trauma-informed, utilizing softer elements in the environment to provide support and ideally reduce the risk of repeat offenders returning to jail.”

That starts with simple measures such as not having urinals in the bathrooms, according to Daria Serna, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s department. Other features include ample lighting, a community gathering space, a mural depicting the Maroon Bells, furniture that resembles home decor, noise reduction, side-by-side beds as opposed to traditional bunk beds, more relaxing color schemes, and furniture and exercise equipment.

According to Serna, the new building will have 336 beds. The average daily population of female inmates this year has been 217. Kuhn says the original budget for the project was $8.2 million, and it has so far cost $8.8 million.

All female inmates will be moved into the building within thirty days "after the building is turned over to the Denver Sheriff Department," according to Serna.
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming