La Plata County Jail deputies are exhausted.
One deputy slumped in her chair this week at a control center in the middle of the jail’s main housing block, which offers a panoramic view of cellblocks. From inside a dark room, she and another deputy monitor dozens of inmates through large glass windows with well-lit cellblocks on the other side. A control booth allows them to view cameras and open and close dozens of cell doors.
It’s usually quiet in the mornings, but once inmates wake up, things get hectic. And with inmate populations swelling, deputies are supervising more people with the same amount of resources.
The La Plata County Jail housed an average of 101 inmates per day five years ago, but that population grew to 190 inmates in 2018. Two snapshot dates from this year – June 28 and Aug. 15 – reported 209 inmates and 216 inmates, respectively, said jail Lt. Gary Boudreau.
The jail’s budget increased from $6.05 million in 2015 to $6.49 million in 2019, about a 7% change, according to the approved 2019 La Plata County budget.
“Just because the population goes up doesn’t mean we add more staff,” Boudreau said.
Fewer people are actually going to jail, but they are staying for longer, increasing the average daily population by 10% to 12% each year for the past four years, according to an annual report.
The maximum capacity of the jail is about 290 people, but there’s no way the Sheriff’s Office could supervise that many inmates without more deputies, Boudreau said.
“We’re not at the point where we’re hitting that capacity, but we’re pushing the envelope,” he said.
Comfort comes firstDeputies work long hours supervising hundreds of inmates. They must keep certain inmates from coming into conflict with others inmates. And deputies are working in what is in effect two buildings – the old La Plata County Jail, which used to be a rifle factory, and the new jail built as an addition about 10 years ago.
Jail administrators have decided to house inmates in the old jail – a building with a maze of narrow corridors lined with steel doors – to ensure at least some level of comfort for the incarcerated, Boudreau said.
“Rather than overcrowd, we try to keep inmates as comfortable as possible,” he said.
But the design of the old jail makes it difficult for deputies to supervise inmates, Boudreau said. There’s no central location from which each cellblock can be seen. Central intake and control for jail operations is at least a 40-second walk from the turquoise-accented corridors of the old jail.
Administrators tend to house more trustworthy inmates in the cinder-block structure of the old jail. The jail’s trustees as they’re called – men and women who are incarcerated but trusted to clean floors, cook food or do work outside the jail – stay in the old jail.
There are cameras in the old jail’s cellblocks, but nothing substitutes the watchful eye and authoritative presence of a sheriff’s deputy, Boudreau said.
“This is what strains our resources,” he said of keeping inmates in the old jail. “People have to walk all the way down here and look.”
There’s a point somewhere around 200 inmates that the dynamics of the jail begin to change, but Boudreau said he’s not quite sure at what point his employees start feeling strained.
Deputies work three 12-hour days a week, but when someone is sick or has a family emergency, Boudreau said deputies on call have to work overtime they may not want. And affording deputies overtime pay drains the Sheriff’s Office’s already-strapped budget.
“If (jail) population trends continue like they are, we’ll hit a point when we’ll need substantial resources for more staffing,” Boudreau said.
Stuffed to the brimThe jail’s holding cells – seven rooms where inmates are held before joining general population – are often near capacity, Boudreau said. He said he never thought the Sheriff’s Office would need that much holding space.
La Plata County Jail has an agreement to house inmates from Archuleta County, San Juan County and the federal government. Archuleta County keeps an average of 30 inmates in the La Plata County Jail every day.
Boudreau said when his subordinates come to him with concerns about working so much, he reminds them that Archuleta County is building a jail that should be done next year, which should offer some reprieve.
“The difference between 180 people and 212 people is huge,” he said. “We can feel the difference.”
Judges have released some suspects of nonviolent crimes to reduce pressure on the jail.
More violent crime in La Plata County means inmates are often incarcerated for months, or even years, before their case can be heard by a judge or jury, Boudreau said.
Mark Redwine – a Vallecito man charged with second-degree murder and child abuse related to the death of his 13-year-old son, Dylan – has been incarcerated in the La Plata County Jail for almost two years awaiting trial, which is scheduled to begin in April 2020.
“It’s very difficult for an individual to spend years in a county jail,” Boudreau said.