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Eagle County jail wrestling with capacity as budget woes continue

The county jail's direct supervision wing has been closed since 2009, just after it opened. Budget troubles and dropping inmate numbers forced its closing. With inmate numbers back up, the Sheriff's Office is trying to find the money to reopen it.
Eagle County Sheriff’s Office |

EAGLE — The Eagle County jail has room to hold more inmates, but does not have the money to hire enough jailers to do so.

A “direct supervision” wing has been idle almost since the Eagle County Commissioners approved the project 10 years ago. The recession hit in 2008, and population in both the county and the jail declined. The wing was idled as jail population floated around 55 inmates.

Today, inmate numbers are now consistently around 95 in facilities designed to hold 76. The Sheriff’s Office drives inmates to other counties to house them.

“If we don’t have room for them here, they have to be housed in other jails,” Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek. “No one is obligated to take anyone from us, but so far we’ve never had anyone refuse.”

About the Benjamins

That direct supervision wing will hold 40 inmates and increase the jail capacity to 116 inmates. But the Sheriff’s Office cannot open it until they can add four more deputies.

They can’t add four more deputies until there’s room in the county’s budget, and there wasn’t this year.

For the 2017 county budget, van Beek requested an additional $450,000. That amount would add four more deputies and cover operating costs. But like most other county departments, the Sheriff’s Office was asked to hang in there just a while longer.

“It was more cost effective last year to transport and house inmates in other facilities than to add that number of full time positions,” Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said. “We’re just starting the budget process for next year, and we’ll take another look at it.”

For now, van Beek said he remains hopeful.

“We are in discussions. We all want to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “We’re all working together to try to find ways to fund it.”

It costs $50 a day to house an Eagle County inmate in someone else’s jail.

Critics point out that for $450,000 at $50 a day, an inmate could stay in someone else’s jail for 9,000 days.

However, that does not include staff time and other costs, the sheriff’s office said. Right now, the county is outsourcing 18 inmates to other jails at a cost of $900 a day.

Direct Supervision system

The direct supervision system has been around since 1974, says the professional journal “Criminal Justice and Behavior.” It’s designed for one detentions officer to keep an eye on up to 40 inmates.

It sounds daunting, and it can be, van Beek said, but the data prove it works.

Staffers supervise inmates, trying to encourage positive behavior and discourage negative behavior. In a direct supervision wing, no barriers separate staff and inmates in the housing units.

There are clear sight lines into all areas of the wing.

Traditional jails are constructed on a linear/intermittent surveillance model. Cells are arranged along a corridor, and officers must walk those corridors to observe a cell.

“Because of the interaction and atmosphere, those held in a direct supervision pod are less likely to return to jail,” van Beek said. “It’s much more effective.”

Recidivism — return customers — is higher with the traditional linear system — isolating inmates in cells.

The sheriff’s office is doing cost and efficiency analyses to see if it can find the money somewhere, van Beek said.

In the meantime, when there’s no room in Eagle County’s jail, inmates will be housed in someone else’s jail.

“It’s a safety and security issue. I cannot over-populate my jail, so for now we’ll keep doing what we’re doing,” van Beek said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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