LEADVILLE, Colo.) -- When prisoners in the Lake County Jail wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union some time ago complaining about conditions, they had a well-placed ally: the sheriff.
Sheriff George Sheers had been trying unsuccessfully to get money for a new jail in the economically reeling community, which was suffering from the closure of major mines.
While Sheers didn't get the new jail, he did get money for improvements that the embattled sheriff - currently facing a recall involving other issues - takes pride in.
But Sheers said he still remembers the stench, slime and darkness of the dungeonlike jail during his first visit nearly two years ago.
'Odor hit you in the face'
'My feet stuck to the floor, there was an inch of scum in the showers, some lights weren't working, and the odor hit you in the face,' Sheers said. 'Prisoners put paper plates over the drains in the floor to reduce the stench, and the graffiti that covered the walls was disgusting.'
The ACLU also got letters from prisoners in county jails in Hugo, Westcliffe and San Luis. ACLU officials responded by making inquiries and requesting solutions, despite the small-county money quandaries.
'The courts have held that a lack of money isn't a good enough excuse' for housing prisoners in substandard conditions, said Mark Silverstein of the Denver office of the American Civil Liberties Union. 'They must find a solution.'
In Leadville, Sheers appealed to the county commissioners for money for a new jail, but the commissioners said there wasn't any more money.
Nor was there any public sentiment for a bond issue to improve the plight of prisoners, said County Commissioner Charley O'Leary, noting that voters have repeatedly rejected bond issues for school improvements.
Conditions in the Lake County Jail have dramatically improved under Sheers' stewardship, O'Leary said. But the problems there, and in other small counties, nevertheless illustrate the economic plight they face:
There were 10 male prisoners in the six-bed Washington County Jail in the basement of the 90-year-old courthouse in Hugo on Wednesday. Asked where the other four would sleep, Sheriff Al English replied, 'On the floor. We put out mattresses.'
However, English noted, a new 127-bed jail and justice center, replete with two courtrooms, administrative offices, a dispatch center and an above-ground office for the Sheriff's Department, is under construction and should be finished next year.
The privately financed facility will pay for itself by taking inmates from neighboring counties, states and the federal government in return for a housing fee.
Three female inmates were being held Wednesday in a converted garage adjacent to the Custer County Jail in Westcliffe, while eight male inmates were housed within the jail, said county Sheriff Fred Jobe.
Admitting that the women's facility is a former secured garage, or sallyport, designed to assure that prisoners didn't escape while being brought to the main jail, Jobe said it had been completely remodeled and includes showers, security cameras and even phones for inmates.
Conditions at the Costilla County Jail in San Luis were so bad that the county commissioners concluded that 'it was unsafe for the community, employees and inmates themselves and was below health standards with no security,' County Administrator Elizabeth Pacheco said Wednesday.
The facility was closed 14 months ago and completely renovated, at a cost of more than $ 600,000, with financial help from the state Division of Criminal Justice and the Department of Local Affairs, Pacheco said.
Still short of meeting standard
Although the jail, which reopened this month, now has secure walls, doors and an evidence locker for the first time, the six double-bunked cells 'still don't meet all the requirements,' the county administrator added.
There aren't any statewide standards for county jails, said Nancy Lake, executive director of the County Sheriffs Association of Colorado, adding that perhaps 40 of the state's 63 counties have crowded, underfunded jails.
'There have been efforts to establish state guidelines, but you can't expect counties to fund something they have no money for,' Lake said.
State's small jails deteriorating Inmates in 4 counties seek ACLU's help in improving conditions By Kit Miniclier, Denver Post Staff Writer, November 30, 2000 Thursday 2D EDITION Copyright 2000 The Denver Post Corporation The Denver Post November 30, 2000 Thursday 2D EDITION Terms and Conditions Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.