Guest Opinion: County jail conditions are shocking

It is often said that you can judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. We are failing that test in Alamosa County, despite the concerted efforts of Sheriff Robert Jackson and county leaders. The inmates and staff are at serious risk because the jail is overcrowded and the conditions are awful. Inmates are piled on top of one another. Some are sleeping on the floor. This jail is, by far, the worst that I have ever seen.  

I visited Sheriff Jackson and his staff on my recent trip to Alamosa and as a prosecutor with 20-years’ experience, I have been to a number of correctional facilities. This jail was, however, a new experience for me. Sheriff Jackson warned me that I would be shocked by the conditions of the jail; he was absolutely right.

I walked into the women’s pod and saw the prisoners stacked on bunks, three high. It was the middle of the day, but the women were lying down because there is no room to move. On that particular day, there were 43 women being held -- yet only 28 beds for female prisoners. I looked down at the floor; my shoe was just a few inches from a woman’s face. She was lying under the bottom bunk and I apologized for being so close. She looked up at me and responded with a sad smile. Some of these women are still awaiting trial, yet to be convicted of a crime. Can you imagine awaiting trial while sleeping on the floor of the jail?

The sheriff does not have the personnel to increase staffing at the jail, despite the growing number of inmates housed there. As a result of the overcrowding and understaffing, it is difficult for the sheriff’s deputies to track the gangs that seek control over arriving inmates. Violence is a continuing threat for jail staff. The overcrowding issue is significant enough that the jail is sending prisoners to other facilities, including some hours away—compounding the challenges and costs facing Alamosa.

The sheriff wanted me to be aware of the condition of the jail and the challenges they are facing in providing appropriate services for the inmates. He and his staff are working extremely hard to improve the situation. For example, Sheriff Jackson added a full-time nurse to the staff so that inmates can receive much-needed medical care. He shared with me the many approaches he has been taking to work with county officials to address the problem. This issue is, however, one that state leaders should be helping to address. For example, Colorado could explore regional jail facilities in order to combine resources while still preserving local control.           

Like too many other communities, Alamosa is struggling mightily with the painkiller and heroin epidemic. The drug problem is, in large part, the reason for the surging jail population in Alamosa. Many come to the jail in the throes of addiction. But Medicaid will not cover the cost for medical treatment while in jail, so the medical treatments available for a detoxing prisoner are extremely limited. This issue can be particularly problematic if the addicted prisoner is pregnant and in need of immediate medical care.

The consequences of the heroin and opioid crisis impact so many parts of our society – from the lives of individual addicts and their families, to the work of our medical providers, to the changing duties of law enforcement, and to the functioning of our county jail facilities. At the state level, we need to engage healthcare providers in solving the opioid and heroin epidemic and, with our country on track to lose 60,000 people to overdoses this year, also, ensure that alternatives to painkillers are covered by insurance. Last year, there were more than 236 million prescriptions written for painkillers — that’s approximately one bottle for every American adult. We also need to fund more addiction treatment providers at the local level. For law enforcement, we need to continue providing Naloxone for overdoses. In the court system, drug recovery courts have been successful in helping offenders — but we need to help before the person is arriving at a jail facility and entering the criminal court system.   

Our state must work with local communities, medical providers, treatment facilities, and law enforcement to address this crisis. Handling the exploding addiction crisis, overcrowding in our jails, and inmates with gang connections all require experienced statewide leaders that are willing to stand up and advocate for solutions. These issues are complicated but until statewide leaders take a greater role in dealing with these problems, local communities will continue to suffer the burden.

The suffering at the Alamosa County Jail is real and immediate. Our response must be, as well.  

Michael Dougherty is a prosecutor and candidate for Colorado Attorney General. He can be reached at [email protected].