The world behind bars
Tour provides a look at how jail works, how inmates live
Sam Green/Cortez Journal photos
Equipped with 67 cameras, a single deputy monitors the Montezuma County Detention Center.
From a darkened control room, a deputy visually inspects prisoner pods and monitors jail operations from several computer screens. He can control door locks, and heating and cooling systems. A refrigerator and restroom are a couple of steps away.
“It's a challenging duty, which requires someone with great multitasking skills,” explained jail commander Victoria Pierce.
Members of The Cortez Journal tagged along last week for a peek at the Montezuma County jail. Inmates were on lockdown as a Cortez Journal reporter, photographer and editor toured the facility.
Montezuma County Sheriff's Sgt. John Hargraves, who said he has worked at the jail for five years, noted that the work's not for everyone. Those considering the job are invited to observe the control room before applying.
“Some people can't adjust,” he said. “The sights and sounds. People get claustrophobic.”
“All of our new people start out in the control room,” Pierce said.
Montezuma County Undersheriff Lynda Carter said detention officers often receive only minutes for breaks while working eight-hour shifts.
“Deputies have to be able to respond to any situation immediately,” Carter said.
“There's no such thing as a half-hour lunch break,” Pierce added.
“It's a stressful job,” Pierce said. “We're incarcerated too when working here.”
The way inside
A buzzer sounded to start the 90-minute tour. A windowless metal door clicked open. Once members of the Journal passed, the door slammed. A jarring echo reverberated across the cold concrete.
“It takes us about an hour to book an inmate into the jail,” Pierce said at the sally port, where an average of 69 inmates arrived daily in 2013.
A 16-week training program is required for all jailers. Protocols to ensure safety, security and conformity were developed by guidelines adopted by the National Sheriff's Association, and officers are required to complete training seminars annually. A minimum of four deputies work per shift.
Pierce explained the booking procedure included pat downs and paperwork. Fingerprinting and photographs follow.
“We try to hold the inmates in booking for at least 24 hours before sending them to general population,” Pierce said.
Although medically cleared at Southwest Memorial Hospital, some inmates are extremely intoxicated when they arrive at the jail, Pierce said. She declined to comment on why hospital officials would release drunken prisoners, but added that the 24-hour hold enabled staff to better monitor inmates for potential medical or mental health issues.
“A lot of time, the inmates will talk more to a nurse,” Pierce said.
Inmates are housed by classification, including low-, medium- and high-security risks. Low-risk inmates wear orange-and-white striped uniforms, medium-risk inmates wear black-and-white stripes, and high-risk inmates wear khaki shirts and pants. All are issued sandals, a sleeping mat, two sheets, three blankets, a towel, toothbrush and disposable underwear.
“They can buy other stuff from the commissary,” Pierce said.
Last year, the jail collected nearly $19,000 in revenue from commissary sales, according to a sheriff's office report.
An inmate's routine
Eight cells with 16 inmates are housed in pods based on inmate classification. Prisoners are responsible for cleaning their cells, and with good behavior are afforded access to playing cards, books and television for recreation. The cells are also equipped with a video system, which enable remote visits with family members.
“The less you take an inmate out of the cell, the better,” Pierce said.
Last year, the jail collected nearly $15,000 in telephone charges from inmates.
Housed in pods for 23 hours per day, inmates are allowed one hour of physical recreation daily, but only in an indoor handball court, vented for fresh air. The facility doesn't offer outdoor recreation, and even cellblock windows are painted over, obstructing sunlight.
“If they qualify for an inmate crew, they have the opportunity to get out and work, while supervised, in the community,” said Carter.
Last year, according to jail records, inmate road crews collected 4,420 pounds of trash. Only minimum-security inmates are approved for the work detail. Others also have jobs in the kitchen, laundry and bucket crew.
Carter said an outdoor recreation yard creates safety problems, and serves as a method for contraband to enter the facility. She said there are no plans to add a yard for inmates.
“The taxpayers, in my opinion, would not stand for the additional cost,” said Carter.
According to a Montezuma County Sheriff's Office report, the average stay for inmates last year was 25 days. Carter, however, said most inmates are incarcerated for less than 72 hours.
Pierce said the jail has had only one escape during her 20-year career. The inmate gained access to a mechanical closet, and squeezed through a vent to slip out. After purchasing beer and cigarettes, the escapee voluntarily returned.
“It was a low-risk inmate years and years ago,” Pierce said. “He only had a 30-day sentence.”
“There's no such thing as an escape-proof prison,” Carter.
Health and mental care
Under a grant from the Colorado Division of Behavioral Health, the jail recently partnered with Axis Mental Health to bring in its first mental health official. Last year, three inmates died while incarcerated at the jail, including one suicide. Patricia Wilson, a behavior health specialist, works at the jail full-time, 40 hours per week.
“Axis has helped alleviate a lot of the stress in the jail,” Pierce said.
Employed by Axis Health System, Wilson provides counseling and case-management services to inmates both while incarcerated and after they are released. Officials said she assesses and diagnoses depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and drug or alcohol abuse, to name a few.
Anna Utley is a medical nurse on staff with the jail for 40 hours a week, in addition to being on call if needed. She works at the jail from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., coordinating with outside providers, for example, to determine inmate prescription needs. Utley indicated up to 90 percent of prisoner prescriptions are not allowed in the jail. Some prescriptions are expired; others, such as medical marijuana, aren't allowed.
“We have to verify all prescriptions,” said Utley.
Carter added Dr. Lori Raney also visits the jail once a month to assist with more severe medical issues inmates may be facing.
The jail also contains a kitchen, where rock music played on a portable radio. Last year, the staff prepared nearly 10,000 meals, each with an average cost of $1.96. Breakfast is served about 8 a.m., lunch at 3:30 p.m. and dinner about 7:30 p.m. The typical dinner meal includes fresh vegetables, homemade bread and a serving of meat. Much of the produce is grown locally, Carter said.
“We have a dietitian who plans the meals,” Pierce said.
Pierce said inmates were prohibited from storing food in their cells, with the exception of some commissary items.
She explained if an inmate kept an apple from lunch, for example, then prison booze could become a problem.