The behind-the-scenes operations of Eagle County detentions
While other law enforcement professionals in the valley are out on patrol, in the courthouse or out and about engaging with the community, certain individuals work with people behind bars at the Eagle County Jail.
As jail staff and volunteers are working with incarcerated individuals, they take on more of a background role in the law enforcement systems, Eagle County Sherriff’s Office detention department captain Gregory Van Wyk said.
“We’re very much behind the scenes in the criminal justice world,” Van Wyk said. “But that’s kind of where we like it.”
Despite not being out and about in the community, Van Wyk explained that much of the detention philosophy driving Eagle County Jail operations is a strong sense of community. After all, when they’re released from the detention center, the Eagle County Jail inmates will often reenter society as members of the Eagle County community.
“You’re going to see people that have been in custody when you’re walking around Walmart with your family, when you’re Christmas shopping at Target — those are real experiences that I’ve had,” Van Wyk said.
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In accordance with constitutional requirements and other legal adherences, Van Wyk said the detention philosophy that drives jail operations is determined by himself with guidance and direction from Eagle County Sheriff James Van Beek.
With a goal of getting inmates back into the community and actively working toward better futures, Van Wyk said those working within the detention center uphold respect for the inmates.
“We extend a great deal of respect to inmates because they’re people — they’re parents, they’re sons, they’re daughters, grandparents even — and they’re human and they deserve dignity irrespective of why they may be here,” Van Wyk said.
Van Wyk said that staff and volunteers understand the stressors that are involved surrounding arrest, detention and release. Staff are specially trained, programs are specifically selected and volunteers contribute countless hours to limit inmate anxiety and help promote their success within and following detention in the Eagle County Jail.
From an inmate’s initial booking to release, even just having deputies educate people on the processes they’ll be going through — like fingerprints, daily routines, and whatever else they can expect moving forward — can help bring stress levels down.
With all the programs available and evaluating inmates through a lens of humanity, detention operations at the Eagle County Jail are representative of values community-wide: “providing services, being good people and seeing people improve their quality of life,” Van Wyk said.
The medical staff at the jail play a large role in both getting inmates adjusted to being in custody as well as preparing them for release with a care plan for the maintenance of possible treatment, Van Wyk said. Throughout their time at the jail, medical staff can support inmates with medical evaluation, completing physical appointments and learning other ways inmates may need support.
Because the Eagle County Jail operates with mental health as a priority, Van Wyk said the jail is hoping to eventually bring on another staffer who would be a full-time mental health resource for inmates.
“Right now, mental health is a universal challenge for all jails because they can’t find people to come and fill those roles,” Van Wyk said.
Though, Van Wyk said it is important for jail operations to understand that mental health support is not only necessary in a moment of crisis. People, including inmates, may need support by feeling involved in a group or having a space to work through feelings, he said. An on-staff mental health professional can help determine ways in which inmates need support and how to execute that.
In the meantime, prioritizing mental wellbeing of inmates as well as offering support through medical staff, programs and interactions with staff is at the forefront of jail operations.
Eagle County Jail inmate programs coordinator Sarah Kennedy said programs inmates can engage in are of a wide variety and can all equip inmates with tools that may help with their transition out of custody, or with personal development in general.
Alcoholics Anonymous, ministry, Spanish programs, parenting programs and yoga are a few options that Kennedy said inmates have shared positive feedback about.
Additionally, educational opportunities offered within the jail can help inmates find opportunities that might not have beforehand been available to them.
Using workbooks, inmates can complete the coursework for four required topics on the GED exam and also take the test within the facility in order to obtain their GED certification. If a person has already started completing their GED before incarceration at the Eagle County Jail, Kennedy said they can pick it up where they left off.
“We’ve had some folks come in and get their GED, and they just rip through it because they have the knowledge and the skill, they’ve just never been given the opportunity,” Van Wyk said.
Inmates can dive into their education even further with tutors and instructors from the community who come in and share knowledge on topics like financial literacy and creative writing. One avenue educators reach inmates is through the Colorado Mountain College Connect program, a partnership between the jail and the community college to offer several educational topic instructions throughout the calendar year.
Compared with other facilities, Van Wyk said the Eagle County Jail does a fairly good job supplying resources straight from the community to inmates. He explained the surrounding community’s administration and their goals for the facility, as well as the amount of people a detention center houses and involvement of those within the community are all factors in determining what programs and services the facility can provide inmates.
“I’ve had a lot of good relationships with a lot of facilities out throughout the state,” Van Wyk said. “I think 100% every jail is trying to do their best. There’s a wide disparity in resources that each community can provide a jail.”
Although not all inmates can participate in all the programs and activities the jail offers.
“If you’re a serious person and you’re demonstrating behaviors that are assaultive or whatever, we know we’re going to have to treat you with that in mind,” Van Wyk said. “We don’t change our dignity and our respect and all that, but we may have to place restrictions on someone like that where they may not be able to participate in certain programs because of risk factors.”
Volunteers from the community help the Eagle County Jail host the programs they open up to inmates. Community members interested in volunteering at the jail can complete a volunteer application on the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office Detentions and Jail website. Kennedy said she hopes to organize an orientation for new jail volunteers this month.
Several times, Van Wyk said former inmates have eventually made their way back to the Eagle County Jail as volunteers, becoming mentors to those currently incarcerated.
“They’re great advocates for us,” Van Wyk said.
If community members want to support inmates at the Eagle County Jail aside from volunteering, Kennedy mentioned that the facility accepts donations for the backpack program offered upon inmate release to those who need supplies to get back on their feet outside the jail.
“People may come in in shorts and flip flops, and they’re leaving in a snowstorm,” Kennedy said. “So, we’ve got jackets and boots, we can give them socks, we’ve got a group of senior ladies that crochets scarves and hats for us.”
Additionally, backpacks are filled with hygiene and safety products like deodorant, toothpaste, Narcan and Band-Aids. Like other programs available through the jail, the backpack program is one of many included to reduce inmate stress and support their transition upon release.
“Once people leave here, they are going to be your neighbors and your coworkers and you know, I think it’s good for the community to know that,” Kennedy said. “They need your support.”
Looking forward, Van Wyk said another staff position the jail is looking to add to help support these goals is a case manager position. This staffer would be responsible for helping reduce stressors and challenges for inmates upon release. Van Wyk said the case manager would meet with inmates on a daily basis and learn what can be done while the inmate is in custody to help make their transition after release that much more successful.