Jail tour reflects dismal conditions

Alamosa's jail, and its inmates, are hurting. From the Alamosa Valley Courier. The photography from this story won a 2016 Colorado Press Association award for Best Photography Series.

Dangerously overcrowded, the Alamosa County Jail poses a hazard to both staff and inmates, Sheriff Robert Jackson said on a tour of the facility Tuesday.

The inmates, the overwhelming majority of whom are awaiting court hearings and are only accused of crimes, are being held in cells that lack proper air exchange or enough beds.

"I don't think the general public really understands," said Jackson. "We need to take care of people. We need to treat people with dignity."

The jail was built in 1985 and was originally designed to house 48 inmates. It was modified a few years later to house 87. Today it houses many more than that - sometimes over a hundred.

The air exchange system, however, is still designed for 48.

"If we get a flu virus back here, we get a lot of sickness really fast because the air is so bad," said Jackson.

Sheriff Jackson has been pleading his case to voters to approve a one-percent sales tax increase on the ballot this fall that would raise money to build a new courthouse - and to renovate the county jail.

The proposed renovation would add 32 beds to the jail, though they would all be for female inmates. The current jail only has space for eight women, who are held in a cramped and narrow wing. The windows are blacked out to prevent harassment from male inmates, and the air is stagnant and stuffy.

Jackson recently ordered additional bunks that will raise the capacity of the women's wing to 12.

The overcrowding problem forces the sheriff's office to send excess inmates to jails in other counties - primarily Conejos - at a cost of about $500,000 a year. Last night, Jackson said, 13 women and eight men were housed in jails outside Alamosa County.

Jail facilities are often woefully inadequate, said Jackson. Of four holding cells, which are used for transferring or processing inmates, only two have toilets. One has a grate in the floor, and one has no toilet whatsoever. The holding cells may hold up to five inmates for hours at a time.

"I call this place Shawshank," said Detention Corporal Layne Hall, referencing a brutal prison in a story by Stephen King. "It's busting at the seams. You can only fix broke so many times."

Jackson has taken steps to address problems. He added closed-circuit cameras to the holding cells and other areas. Much of Jackson's efforts have focused on addressing boredom and morale among inmates, such as adding 30 channels of cable television and satellite radio.

"When I got here they didn't have anything," Jackson said. "So they plugged up the toilets, they were violent. It was scary for the staff here. So I give them stuff. They know I can take it away."

Jackson said one of the most popular additions has been a Nintendo Wii video game system in the recreation room.

"I didn't even know what a Wii was," said Jackson. "It's amazing. They don't destroy it. They take very good care of those controller deals. They like being given a little responsibility."

Jackson said he doesn't believe that jail should be cruel.

"People think once someone commits a crime they just need to be locked up and we're done," Jackson said. "Well, that doesn't work. Look at the Department of Corrections. Look at the recidivism rates."

Jail can be a positive place for some inmates, said Jackson.

"You'll see people who are in here who are polite, they're gaining weight again, they're sober. We've had people say 'Just keep my son there! This way I know he's sober, he's not committing crimes, he's not going to kill himself or overdose.'"

Even if voters approve the tax increase to fund the jail expansion, overcrowding may continue to be a problem in the future, Jackson said.

"If we as a community don't get a grip on this heroin problem, we're going to need more beds," said Jackson. "Somebody asked me how far into the future would this expansion put you, and I said: about ten minutes."

"These people have hit rock bottom," Jackson said. "They come in here and they have nothing. We take their money, their clothes, we strip-search them. We tell them when to eat, what to wear, when they can call. It's our responsibility to make sure we at least give something back."

^Inmates await transfer to other facilities in a holding cell at Alamosa County Jail. The cell, which may house up to five inmates, has no toilet - only a grate in the corner.

^Estifanos Ogbaselassie sits in a cell with bunks for 9 inmates, which currently houses 11 - two on mats on the floor.

^Jail Sergeant Royce Brubacher, an Army veteran who served in Iraq at the beginning of the invasion, displays a bologna sandwich from a transfer inmate's lunch at Alamosa County Jail.

^Nathan Greer, left, and Dominic Martinez, two "trusty" inmates, prepare food in the jail's kitchen. Trusty privileges allow inmates to earn time off their sentences and offer an incentive for inmates to follow rules.

^Inmates in a holding cell at Alamosa County Jail as observed by closed-circuit camera in the jail's Control Room. The jail's four holding cells didn't have cameras until earlier this year, and fights were common.

^Alamosa County Jail's "restraint chair," used to subdue combative or unruly inmates.

^A sink in a cell in B-Pod, which houses low-risk inmates.

^Sheriff Jackson in front of an inmate's mattress in an over-capacity cell.

^Sheriff Jackson in front of the jail's new Nintendo Wii, which helps combat inmate boredom and is a privilege that could be withheld for bad behavior.

^A floor grate toilet in a holding cell, which may house up to five inmates.

^Sheriff Jackson stands beneath a holding cell's only air vent. The jail's air exchange system was designed for 48 inmates, though the jail now has bunks for 87 - and routinely houses more than that.

^A domino set made of soap bars and colored with pen ink in a cell in B-Pod.

^Nathan Greer, a "trusty" inmate who works in kitchen of the Alamosa County Jail prepares lunches for inmates.

^The air inlet vent in an overcrowded cell.

^Sheriff Jackson discusses the difficulties of running an underfunded jail in the jail's multipurpose room, which is sometimes used for church ministry.

^Inmates from La Plata County Jail await transfer on their way to different correctional facilities. Sheriff's deputies had to hold the women in the jail's visiting room because the holding cells were filled with male inmates.

^From left, inmates Victor Garcia, Oscar Gaspar, and Chris Salazar watch television in B-Pod of the Alamosa County Jail.

^Heather Gibson, 23, awaits transfer to another facility at the Alamosa County Jail.

^Sheriff Jackson stands in the Alamosa County Jail's recreation yard, which was designed for half the jail's current inmate capacity.

^Inmates watch television in B-Pod. Television is important in reducing boredom among inmates which may lead to fighting or other problems, and is a privilege that could be withheld as punishment for misbehavior.