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Pueblo County Jail: overbooked, understaffed

Overcrowding at the Pueblo County Jail is becoming an issue beyond the building’s deteriorating infrastructure.

Morale among staff is difficult to keep up, along with staffing numbers, according to Pueblo County Sheriff’s Department leaders.

In the early morning hours of March 3, Mario Vigil, an inmate at the jail, attacked a deputy, attempted to strangle the officer and then used the officer’s taser against the officer before trying to gain access to an elevator inside the jail. The attack, shocking in itself, alludes to what Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor has been saying for years: the bough will break, and it may be sooner rather than later.

The officer only sustained minor injuries, but the incident highlights the difficulties of running a severely overcrowded facility.

“These attacks are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come if we don’t figure out a way to get some relief in the jail with regard to overcrowding,” Taylor later said in a news release.

“But for the dogged determination of this entire shift, this incident could have ended much worse.”

During a tour of the jail earlier this year, Taylor and other deputies said the jail is running with a third less of staff than it should. It takes about 75 to 80 officers to properly supervise the jail. The jail is operating at less than 50 officers.

The jail is 28 positions down, one deputy pointed out.

Deputies are being pulled from patrol because without an infirmary at the jail, inmates have to be escorted to area hospitals, Taylor added.

Additionally, the sheriff’s department has shortened training for officers working in the jail.

Overtime is constantly an issue, Taylor said. Officers in the jail don’t have a choice but to work overtime. And the department always seems to be have open positions for new officers.

“The (hiring) burden relies on the county commissioners,” Taylor said. Hiring more people, or making the position more attractive with higher pay, would require an act of the county commissioners and designating more from the county budget.

Pueblo County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz, who is leading the Jail Task Force, told PULP in an interview jail staffing will be a conversation he intends to have as budget talks roll around, even as he’s working with a group to address the jail infrastructure.

The Jail Task Force is composed of at least 40 people with different professional backgrounds. Some from politics, others from infrastructure. Another subcommittee of the group is tasked with looking into recidivism and Pueblo’s drug problem; the most common charge that ends up in jail, Ortiz said, is a felony drug charge.

“You could build the biggest, baddest jail that you want, but doesn’t fix the problem,” Ortiz said. “That’s why we’re trying to address some of these social issues too.”

Ultimately, Ortiz and the task force want to solve the crowded jail problem, and not with a bandaid either. The end goal for the task force is to find a way to reduce overcrowding at the 30-year-old deteriorating facility that almost always houses more inmates than it is built to hold.

Over the summer the sheriff’s office said it would likely house a record 850 inmates in a jail meant for 509 inmates.

“Don’t ask us how we’re preparing. We don’t know,” Taylor said.

The solution the task force decides on may mean a new jail, it may not, said Ortiz, adding that the group is leaving no option unvetted as possible relief.

Members of the task force are looking at short-term and long-term solutions. A short-term solution may be using an old Colorado Mental Health Institute building — that would have to be renovated and brought up to proper code for a jail.

In the long-term categories, the task force is looking at running another sales tax ballot initiative to pay for a new facility. Taylor has already unsuccessfully pitched the tax to Pueblo voters once. The group is also looking at the possibility of leasing a jail built in the private sector. Even completely overhauling the existing the current jail is an option, according to Ortiz.

“Eventually we’ll need a new jail. Period,” Ortiz said.

What form that new jail takes and how it is made possible are where the task force committees intervene.

By the end of July Ortiz and the task force, which has been meeting in six subcommittees on a monthly basis, want to have a report ready for the community. That will outline what steps the county plans to take in relieving the jail, that in some places is literally being held together by steel plates, from massive overcrowding.

Budget talks for Pueblo County are to begin soon. But for a county already stretching its wallet, it’s too soon to tell if the jail will at least get a shot to the arm in terms of manpower.

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