Garfield County to house Pitkin County inmates
Airport area floated as possible location for new Pitkin County jail, which could cost about $20 million
The Aspen Times
Antiquated and unsafe conditions at the Pitkin County Jail mean that most inmates likely will be held at the Garfield County Jail in the near future.
Pitkin County commissioners preliminarily approved the plan Tuesday during their regular weekly work session, which also included talk of using a not-yet-proposed “public safety tax” to build a new jail — possibly near the airport — that is estimated to cost around $20 million.
“My sense is this county will end up building a new facility,” said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, adding that current low interest rates could be reason to get the job done sooner rather than later.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo suggested selling the more than 30-year-old jail, located downtown behind the Pitkin County Courthouse, to help finance construction of a new jail.
“They basically took a really expensive piece of property and put a jail on it,” DiSalvo told commissioners. “It’s for other people to answer as to what the resale of this property is, and if we could build a better facility out by the airport or something that makes my operation easier and we don’t have a jail in the middle of town.”
DiSalvo has been sounding off about conditions at the jail for years, though his sense of urgency has grown since a 64-year-old female inmate died by suicide in November 2019.
“I don’t want to lose another person in there,” he said. “It was very, very difficult on my staff and on me. Not much has changed since then. We’re very fortunate that family didn’t come after us (legally).”
The jail was built for a different kind of inmate than it now houses, DiSalvo said.
Back when then-Sheriff Bob Braudis supervised building the new jail, community and law enforcement officials wanted the inside of the jail to reflect outside living conditions as much as possible. Inmates were mainly housed for short periods of time for crimes like drunken driving or domestic violence, with a 90-day sentence considered long, he said.
But 10 to 15 years ago, a different kind of inmate began to dominate the population. These included the “career criminal-type,” those with serious mental health issues and others who know they’ll be convicted and sent to prison and use stall tactics like changing lawyers to serve out as much of a future sentence in kinder, gentler county jail as opposed to the serious prison life at the Department of Corrections, DiSalvo said. One woman recently spent two years at the jail, he said.
Then there’s the physical layout problems. The jail’s booking area, for example, is dangerous and the spot where an inmate recently assaulted a jail deputy with a computer screen, DiSalvo said. Finally, there’s not a separate area for women, beds are unsafe because they’re not bolted to the floor, there aren’t enough holding cells and the locking system is old.
“There’s so many problems,” he said. “I feel the jail is no longer a safe facility for people being housed there.”
A consulting firm recently inspected the jail, and a full report is expected this summer, though preliminary results have come back, DiSalvo said.
“We did not really get a great grade,” he said.
Because of those concerns, DiSalvo said he felt he needed to immediately make a change, and Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario is willing to accept Pitkin County inmates. The Garfield County Jail can house up to 225 inmates, but is currently running at an average of 125 a day so there’s plenty of room.
In addition, the facility has minimum, medium and maximum security areas, separate quarters for women and 24-hour medical care, DiSalvo said. He said he’s heard the facility get a “bad rap” in recent conversations.
“It’s not true,” DiSalvo said, adding that the jail is clean and provides good food. “It’s an impressive facility.”
Vallario agreed to accept Pitkin County inmates for up to three years as long as Pitkin County is working on a solution to its jail problems, DiSalvo said.
Commissioners preliminarily approved an inter-governmental agreement with the Garfield County Jail on Tuesday, though it is still being reviewed by the county attorney’s office, DiSalvo said.
Garfield County will charge Pitkin County $60 an inmate per day, which amounts to $240,900 a year for 11 inmates and up to $525,600 for 24 inmates. DiSalvo said Pitkin County averages between 11 and 15 inmates per day.
The Pitkin County Jail will remain open for people held up to 48 hours, DiSalvo said. But any inmate held longer than 48 hours would be transferred to Garfield County.
The transfer of inmates to Garfield would save Pitkin County about $330,000 a year in current inmate costs, said Alex Burchetta, Pitkin County undersheriff.
Commissioners were mostly supportive of the move Tuesday.
“I’m willing to go forward here,” Commissioner Greg Poschman said. “You have my confidence here.”
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