People detained by the Southern Ute Tribal Police could be housed in the La Plata County Jail as a result of coronavirus-related staffing shortages at the tribe’s detention center.
The tribal jail no longer has enough staff to remain open after the tribal government issued social-distancing requirements in March, according to county documents. La Plata County commissioners and the Sheriff’s Office approved an intergovernmental agreement Tuesday to hold Southern Ute arrestees at the county jail. The tribal government declined to comment about whether it approved its half of the agreement Tuesday morning.
“They have reached the point where staff can no longer detain inmates or arrestees in a safe fashion,” said Sheryl Rogers, La Plata County attorney, at Tuesday’s meeting with county commissioners.
County staff said the county jail, which has been overpopulated in the past, has capacity for new detainees.
The La Plata County Jail’s population has steadily increased since 2014.
The jail’s maximum population is 290, but to function effectively, it should house about 217 or fewer occupants, said Ed Aber, jail commander for the Sheriff’s Office.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the jail is under orders to reduce its population as a social-distancing measure. It has reduced its population from 210 inmates to 120, Rogers said.
With that population, the jail has enough available space to house incoming Southern Ute detainees, she said.
“We have been very sensitive to the numbers the jail can safely handle and maintain distancing requirements,” Rogers said.
The jail will accept only new arrestees. Aber anticipated about one arrest every few weeks based on information from the tribe.
When it closed April 1, the Southern Ute jail housed about 17 people, who are currently located in Montezuma County. La Plata County does not plan to house those detainees.
The intergovernmental agreement would continue for 90 days, unless the tribe and Sheriff’s Office mutually agree to extend the agreement for an additional 90 days. The tribe would pay the county about $59 per person each day, which is the standard rate.
“Coronavirus is creating some unique situations, and we’re all trying to help each other out,” said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith.
The county would be protected from potential liabilities, such as wrongful arrest claims or medical costs for a sick person detained by the tribe.
“All the provisions here are there to protect us because we’re simply providing a housing service in a secure facility,” Rogers said.
The Sheriff’s Office can accept or reject Southern Ute detainees based on five criteria, including bed availability and the need for quarantine space.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe considered closing its 57-bed detention center last year to save up to $2 million, when the tribe’s budget decreased by $14 million. The tribal government did not respond to questions from The Durango Herald about future plans for the facility.