Garfield County sheriff severs jail agreement, Pitkin inmates will now go to Eagle County

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
The Garfield County Detention Facility in Glenwood Springs.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

A working relationship between the Garfield and Pitkin County jails ended last week after a new sheriff took office in Aspen. 

Eagle County Detention Facility is the new holding place for inmates of Pitkin County who are incarcerated for more than 48 hours, such as those who don’t bond out or are awaiting trial. Seven inmates were transferred to the Eagle facility on Thursday after Pitkin County officials began scrambling Tuesday to find a new home for them. 

Until Tuesday, Garfield and Pitkin counties were operating under an intra-governmental agreement reached nearly two years ago. Joe DiSalvo, Pitkin County’s sheriff at the time, determined its own 24-bed jailhouse was outdated and too small to safely operate in its current state. DiSalvo and Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario negotiated a three-year agreement that received commissioners’ approval in March 2021 and called for Garfield County Jail to house Pitkin’s detainees with extended stays. 

“The Garfield County Sheriff is willing to provide such housing for individual detainees and confined persons under the terms and conditions of the agreement and until such time as Pitkin County is able to house its own detainees, as long as progress toward a new or remodeled jail facility is moving forward,” said a memo to Pitkin County commissioners in advance of a March 2021 meeting where they approved the IGA. 

Vallario said in an email sent to newly-minted Sheriff Michael Buglione that he was severing the agreement because of Bulglione’s stated campaign position last fall that Pitkin County did not need a new jail.

County Manager Jon Peacock and Buglione said during a press briefing Thursday that they received emails from Vallario after the noon inauguration on Tuesday, when Buglione took an oath of office and, since then, had been seeking other options to the Garfield County Jail. 

“Due to the election, the personalities and philosophies have changed. I have no desire to build a personal relationship with your new sheriff, but I will maintain a professional demeanor as our paths cross. I’ll be asking the Garfield BOCC to terminate the IGA pursuant to this agreement,” said Vallario’s letter to Peacock.

Vallario’s decision did not come out of the blue. 

His wife, Kim Vallario, had been Pitkin County’s jail administrator since April 2018. A DiSalvo hire, her voluntary resignation became official Jan. 4. Given that her husband holds conservative views and he supported lightning-rod U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Silt, her surname didn’t go over well with Democrats in Pitkin County, who nominated Buglione to run against the unaffiliated, three-term sheriff, DiSalvo. Left-leaning foes of DiSalvo hammered him on that point. 

“We anticipated that, because of the tone of some of the letters (to the newspapers during the sheriff’s race) and such, that is, not necessarily Michael’s campaign’s conversation,” Peacock said. “But, there’s definitely some community conversation. So, we did do some scenario-planning just in case this agreement was canceled.”

The options, however, were not the most desirable, he said. One would have been to eliminate the Pitkin County Jail’s work-release program to make room for inmates staying longer than 48 hours. An upgrade on the jailhouse’s work-release section was finished last year. Another option was to relocate the detainees to privately-run jails. 

“We did have a plan to be able to bring our inmates back safely into the Pitkin County Jail, and we do have plans and, if the number of inmates we can safely accommodate exceeds what our facility could handle, that we could overflow those to private facilities, for example,” Peacock said. “We did not want to do that. We have a work-release program that is an important diversion program for our jail. We would lose the spaces, which were recently renovated and made up to standard for work release, so we would have to suspend the availability of that program to house our inmates here.”

The Eagle County facility was not included in the scenario-planning, but the opportunity arose and “we’re grateful for that partnership to give us more time to work on this,” Peacock said. 

As of Thursday, the arrangement with Eagle County was fluid: The extent of the agreement is indefinite, and it was not clear how much Pitkin County would be paying Eagle County to house each inmate. Pitkin was paying Garfield just under $61 an inmate.

Buglione said the Sheriff’s Office will be seeking “a long-term relationship with Eagle and an IGA will be put in place,” noting the BOCC approval would be needed. In the event of a Glenwood Canyon closure during the winter, he said long-term inmates would have to stay in Pitkin County.

He said he believes a working relationship with Garfield County remains important. 

“If there’s something broken, I want to mend it,” he said. 

Disagreements between the counties, which can clash politically, can be cyclical, Peacock said.

“What I’m seeing right now,” he said, “is this is being handled according to the agreement, we’re responding appropriately, and, like Michael said, we’ll always seek to mend because we’re going to need each other in the future, whether it’s wildfire, flood, the Glenwood Canyon closing, the workforce that we share, and the needs that we have. We still have a lot to share as one community. And, it’s important for us to continue to work together. And, will we disagree? Of course, that’s why we have different counties — to represent different interests and different constituencies.”

He said there is “sense of urgency” for the county to come up with a long-term plan for the jail, whether it is remodeling the existing one or building a new one. When DiSalvo was in office, particularly during his final term, he had pushed for a new jail partly because of two high-profile incidents — the suicide of an inmate in November 2019 and a report of consensual sex between a male and female inmate in April 2016.

Vallario did not respond to a message left at his office on Thursday. He will still need the Garfield County BOCC’s approval to officially sever the agreement, and the item is first up on the county commissioners 8 a.m. agenda on Monday. But Buglione and Peacock said they were operating as if the termination already was in place.

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