Denver says overcrowding and mental illness caused 784 percent spike in jails violence

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Inside the Douglas County jail. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) jail; castle rock; detention; justice; law; kevinjbeaty; denverite; colorado;

Inside a Colorado jail that is not in Denver. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

This article was first published in The Colorado Independent.

By Susan Greene

Assaults among inmates in Denver’s jails have increased 784 percent since 2011 and spiked dramatically in the past two years, according to data obtained by The Colorado Independent.

The data also show that inmate-on-staff assaults have jumped 620 percent since 2011 – again, with significant increases since 2015.

The surge in violence comes despite efforts by Michael Hancock’s administration over the past two years to enact reforms meant to make Denver’s troubled jails safer. Those include the 2015 hiring of Sheriff Patrick Firman, whom Hancock has touted as “a change agent.”

In a written statement Monday, the department said it “takes the safety and wellbeing of staff and inmates very seriously” and is “concerned about assaults in our facilities.”

“All correctional facilities are potentially hazardous,” read the email from spokesman Simon Crittle. “That’s why we staff our jails with highly trained law enforcement professionals. They work hard to minimize the risks.”

But several of those professionals say Hancock’s administration hasn’t done enough of its own work to minimize the risks of overcrowding and other safety issues.

“There are fights breaking out on a regular basis,” says sheriff’s Deputy Mike Britton, vice president of Denver’s sheriff’s union local. “You’ve got inmates with shanks, or going hands-on, or throwing chairs, throwing urine or feces or whatever they can to use as a weapon.”

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said the increasing assault rates raise questions about the efficacy of Hancock’s and Firman’s reform efforts.

“It’s not acceptable to have this kind of violence rising in the jails,” she said. “There needs to be more confidence in the leadership. There needs to be confidence that we’ve got the right people in these positions who know what the hell they’re doing.”

The data:

The Independent reported last week on an internal survey showing deputies and other sheriff’s department employees have serious concerns about leadership, overcrowding and safety in Denver’s city and county jails. Respondents’ high level of anxiety about assaults prompted us to file a public records request asking for assault rates from 2011 through 2016.

According to the city’s data, there was a monthly average of 3.66 inmate-on-inmate assaults reported in 2011, and the number has climbed each year since – to 4 in 2012, 6.3 in 2013,  and 9.58 in 2014. Assaults spiked to 25.58 in 2015  and to 32.37 in the first eight months of 2016. That’s nearly a ninefold — or 784 percent — increase since 2011.

Inmate assaults on jail staff followed a similar trajectory. The data shows rates of those attacks averaged 1.7 a month in 2011, climbing to 3 in 2012, 3.5 in 2013, and 5 in 2014. Like the assaults between inmates, inmate attacks on staffers jumped dramatically over the past two years, to an average of 9.3 a month in 2015 and to 12.25 monthly in the first eight months of 2016, for a six-year increase of more than sevenfold or 620 percent.

The city defines physical assaults broadly, ranging from spitting at someone to striking them with an object. Deputies say fights are often spurred by gang tensions, inmates being off their psych medications, or something as simple one inmate snatching food off another’s lunch tray. Longtimers in the department say there has been a proliferation in weapons, but a reluctance by the administration to search for them and weed them out.

The city attributes increasing inmate violence to population growth in Denver. The downtown jail opened in 2010 and was supposed to serve the city’s needs at least until 2035. It has been approaching capacity for two years now. The 2016 daily average headcount within the county jail and the downtown detention facility was a combined 2,221 inmates, 95 percent of capacity, according to city records. Capacity is 2,330 inmates.

The city also cites an increase in mental health and substance abuse challenges among inmates as a cause for the violence.

“Further analysis needs to be conducted on assaults data to determine other underlying factors,” Crittle wrote.

Denver’s City Council and mayor included an additional $24 million in the 2016 budget to pay for comprehensive reforms within the Denver Sheriff’s Department. Asked what the uptick in violence says about the efficacy of the reforms, Crittle wrote: “The reform process has been successful at identifying and addressing challenges the department faces.”

“We still have work to do but are making good progress.”

The Sheriff’s Department says it’s taking appropriate steps to maintain order and safety by having hired more deputies to work in the jails. Current staffing levels were not immediately available, but according to a 2014 Sheriff’s Department annual report, the agency, the state’s largest sheriff’s department, had 726 sworn officers at the end of that year. (Average daily inmate population between its two facilities was 1,522.) This was before the department began its expanded recruitment efforts under the reforms. It also has released a new use of force policy and trained all officers on crisis intervention.

“Inmates with a history of violence are separated from other inmates, and staff are instructed to take necessary precautions,” read Crittle’s statement. “If an inmate or staff member is assaulted, they are given the option of pressing criminal charges.”

But four deputies and three inmates interviewed for this story say ongoing jail overcrowding and the department’s failure to strategically classify prisoners leaves mentally ill inmates housed among the general population, known violent offenders bunking with physically and emotionally vulnerable inmates, and members of rival gangs housed together in the same pods.

In that environment, deputies and inmates say, no amount of deputies’ “precautions” can ensure safety.

Each of the six insiders interviewed for this story say inmates rarely press assault charges against other inmates because they fear retribution and further violence.

And, deputies add, staffers hesitate to press charges against inmates who attack them because, they’ve learned, nothing will come of it. For that same reason, they say, deputies often don’t bother even writing up inmates who assault them.

“Officers just go, ‘Never mind, they’re not going to do anything about it.’ That’s the mentality. Nothing happens,” said Britton, the union official who was the only deputy to speak on the record for this story.

He said the assault data the city provided The Independent reflects “only half the assaults that really happen,” or “maybe less.”

Given deputies’ safety concerns and a lack of confidence in the department’s reform efforts, the union says a record number of employees are leaving. About 30 new deputies out of the 70-something member recruit class trained last year under Hancock’s new reforms have quit, including seven in the last month, says union president Mike Jackson.

The department hasn’t yet answered an inquiry about recent attrition of its staff. In the meantime, Britton said, “We have the city coming down on us for our overtime problems, so we’re under ‘minimal staffing,’ which just manages to make the situation even more dangerous.” In Denver’s downtown jail, he said housing units that used to hold 60 inmates now hold 90 – often with just one deputy on watch. In the last week alone, he added, “we had two nurses up and quit, saying this is crazy.”

Ed Thomas, a former Denver police officer and city councilman, said inmates and deputies have come to refer to the city jail as “Thunderdome,” a reference to the violent,  steel-cage jousting in the 1985 film”Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”

“The inmates are running the asylum. And I’m not talking about the inmates in the jail, I’m talking about the inmates working in the Hancock administration. There’s not one of them who has been in public safety or even had a hand raised to them in violence,” said Thomas, now a consultant for Denver Sheriff’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #27. “The people running the show at the city need a big dose of Dr. Reality.”

The city is putting a lot of stock in the sheriff’s department’s new data science unit to better understand assaults. The unit analyzes statistics for insights that might better inform jail policies.

But critics say you don’t need a bunch of numbers to see what’s lacking in the jails: leadership. While the vast majority of sheriff’s departments in Colorado are run by elected sheriffs, Firman is a political appointee who reports to safety manager Stephanie O’Malley, who in turn reports to Mayor Hancock. Sources at the city, including some at high levels, say Denver’s management structure ties Firman’s hands and limits his power to make decisions and lead.

The results can be seen in the recent employees’ survey, which shows overwhelming frustration among deputies who feel they’re powerless to control crisis situations without approval from top management. Deputies have told The Independent that supervisors and top managers often seems more interested in avoiding lawsuits than controlling violence. They say it can take hours or even a day for city brass to authorize force against inmate. In the meantime, deputies say they’re unable to control fights and violence.

Three men who recently served time in the jail say inmates are well aware of deputies’ inability to keep the peace in the crowded jails.

“The perception is that they’re weak… and you can get away with pretty much anything,” said Robert Jessup, a mentally ill and homeless 50-year-old who spent some time incarcerated this past fall.

Denver Councilman Rafael Espinoza recently toured the detention center.

“To be honest, I don’t know how they do it,” he said of deputies working under such crowded conditions.

Espinoza is an architect by trade and doesn’t have answers to what ails the sheriff’s department. Still, he said, he’s frustrated by having given the department a $24 million budget increase last year only to see data showing that violence is on the rise.

“We’re investing heavily in these reform efforts, and I’d have liked to see a trend toward progress, not away from it.”

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