Eagle County jail is a facility with a philosophy
Special to the Enterprise
EAGLE, Colorado –Considering that there are 20 guys in a single open room it is remarkably quiet.
On one wall a wide, flat-screen television is tuned silently to the Olympics while a couple of guys wearing earphones watch. Two foursomes gather at round tables talking softly and playing cards.
One fellow reads a newspaper while another takes a turn on the telephone. Across the room a small cluster of men laugh softly while doing a bit of virtual bowling using a Wii game. The general atmosphere is relaxed.
If it weren’t for the orange jump suits and the single, uniformed detentions officer at a nearby table, it would feel more like a rec center than a jail.
Eagle County’s new jail addition is not just a facility. It is a philosophy. The combination of architectural design, inmate classification, clear ground rules and expectations, and buy-in from both detentions officers and prisoners adds up to a new kind of detention facility.
The goal of “direct supervision” is a safe, effective, cost-efficient detentions operation that takes in troubled people and offers an experience that makes them a better person when they return to the streets. The hope is that there will be fewer relapses or repeat jail time.
“Working here is all about respect … it is about attitude and behavior,” says Jail Administrator Bill Kaufman of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, the driving force in creating the direct supervision jail. He’s talking about respect for the rights and safety of inmates as well as the jailers, and mutual respect between the two rather than the traditional fear-hate relationships typical of jails.
Kaufman was skeptical when he first heard of the direct supervision concept at an American Jail Association conference several years ago. But he was also intrigued enough to keep researching the idea. When inmate numbers triggered the need for an addition to the county jail, Kaufman was ready to push ahead with the new concept.
Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy admits to a “are you kidding me” reaction when Kaufman first approached him. But the more Hoy and Undersheriff Jeff Layman talked with Kaufman, the more convinced they became.
“It really does meet a need that we have in the community to get these guys back into society a little bit quicker,” says Hoy. “I think this helps. It gives them a little more ownership and pride.”
Kaufman’s next task was to persuade the disbelieving architects of the $5 million jail addition that he wanted an open-concept facility without the doors and walls of individual cells. The next step was to establish a management style for effective control.
County jails serve a transient clientele, holding prisoners for a short time until either the penalty for minor crimes is paid or the court system sends those convicted of major offenses into the state prison system.
Kaufman stresses that it is not the law officers’ job to delve out justice. Courts handle that task.
“Once the arresting officer comes through the door with a prisoner, they are ours. We need them to behave, get through the booking process and live with us,” he says.
When prisoners first come into the jail, they are classified based on the incident that landed them in the detention facility and on their criminal history. Violent criminals go to the traditional cell section of the jail, and do not have the option of entering the direct supervision pod. Once in the jail, it is the inmate’s behavior that determines whether he can live in the relative freedom of the direct supervision facility.
The jail administrator estimates that about 95 percent of the people who end up in the Eagle County jail are not violent by nature.
“Most people come in here high (on drugs) or drunk. If they are in here long enough and sober up, they become somewhat sociable human beings … so why not threat them like one?” Kaufman says.
The rules and expectations for the direct supervision inmates are clearly spelled out and posted on the walls. The prisoners are responsible for cleaning the pod three times a day. They must be respectful of one another, and of the jailer who “lives” with them during his work shift.
They are encouraged to participate in life skills classes and programs such as English language classes and Alcoholics Anonymous. They can also gain some credit by participating in “restorative justice” programs that help criminals understand the true impacts of their crimes.
Good behavior is rewarded, perhaps with a movie played on the big screen television, use of the Wii, a phone call or the opening of the commissary.
There is zero tolerance for violation of the rules. On a recent afternoon, one inmate who had attempted to stare down a detentions officer was immediately remanded back to a jail cell.
Although there are five detentions officers on duty during any shift at the jail, only one stays in the room with the prisoners, talking with them, answering questions and building rapport. That is one of the reasons there are no individual cells with walls and doors.
“If you can’t see them, you don’t know the culture of the jail. We want to see the officers in the pods, talking to inmates,” says Kaufman.
“The idea is to develop a rapport,” explains Toby Baldwin the officer on duty in the pod on a recent afternoon. “The inmates see you as a person, not just an authority figure.”
That relationship means a safer working situation for the officers and the inmates, and fewer lawsuits, adds Kaufman. There are fewer inmate fights or officer assaults.
“I don’t like the other (cell) jail. This is better,” said one orange-clad inmate, who had another 10 days of a jail sentence to serve. He had no problem with completing the assigned chores.
Another inmate, who said he had served time in several jails, was moved to the pod after exhibiting good behavior on the cell side of the jail.
“You just keep your nose clean, and do what you’re told. I’m serving my time quietly, and peacefully, and getting along,” he said, “… you don’t get to play Wii on the other side.”
The relationships built inside the jail, can create the kind of trust that ends up helping out officers on the road.
Statistics indicate there are about 3,500 jails in America. About 300 facilities practice direct supervision. That makes the new Eagle County facility one of the first smaller-jails to enact the program.
Some Eagle County jail inmates are already involved in work programs. Kaufman and Hoy estimate their department saved the county $325,000 last year (based on minimum wage) by allowing inmates to do landscaping, janitorial and jail kitchen work.
“We been able to save the taxpayers a pretty good chunk of change,” says Hoy.
Kaufman envisions a future program in which inmates of the direct supervision pod would spend part of their days in “Joe Industry” programs, learning a trade and producing marketable products. Hoy is contemplating using inmate labor to build a terraced community garden on the south-facing hill behind the jail. Inmates could grow vegetables for market.
The Sheriff’s Office is just now starting to track incident data that will allow them to measure the effectiveness of the program, compared with the more traditional jail.
Both Hoy and Kaufman acknowledge that some critics will question the effectiveness of a jail program that includes wide screen televisions, Wii, games and other rewards. But the law officers also point out that the primary reason to promote programming and responsibility versus punishment is that the people who spend time in the county jail will for the most part be returning directly back to the community.
“Each of these individuals is someone’s son or daughter, spouse or parent, neighbor or friend,” says Kaufman. “This type of reciprocal respect and accountability goes a long way in cutting down the recidivism rates in our community.”
Hoy points out that in any jail population, there are some people who need to be more closely supervised; and there are some that do well with a little more latitude.
“People have to understand the benefit to the public,” he notes.
Kathy Heicher is freelance writer and a longtime resident of the valley. She can be reached at email@example.com.