Life and Jail in Southern Colorado

Alamosa and Pueblo Counties

Across Southern Colorado, more and more people are being locked up in jails. As the number behind bars swells, cash-strapped rural counties and small cities are facing a dilemma. After decades of rising incarceration rates, should they build even bigger jails? Alamosa County, in the rural San Luis Valley, is in the middle of a jail expansion project which, when completed later this year, will more than double its capacity to incarcerate people. Ninety miles to the northeast, across a wall of mountains and sand dunes lies Pueblo County, home to the small city of the same name. Voters in Pueblo have rejected jail expansion twice, despite increasing jail incarceration in the county and rising opioid use across the region. In both Alamosa and Pueblo, as in rural counties and small cities across the country, policing and incarceration have become integral parts of life for a growing population of the unemployed and working poor. In the absence of well-funded and effective social services, local political leaders struggle with how to address a mounting crisis.

Iob Pueblo Dune

Two years ago, according to the public defender’s office and others, a young woman gave birth to her daughter while locked in a holding cell of the Alamosa County jail. Visibly pregnant, she was held in a five-by-eight foot cinder block room with a hole in the floor instead of a toilet. Despite her repeated cries for medical attention, she delivered the baby herself—guided only by the shouted instructions of women in nearby cells. I spoke with her husband, who had spent three months in the Alamosa County jail himself. He talked to me about drug use, poverty, and incarceration in his hometown. He explained that most of the people he had grown up with in Alamosa had spent time in the jail, in state prison, or both, “mostly for stupid things.” In his view, Alamosa is a place where getting sent to jail was almost to be expected for young working-class people. “It’s like a rite of passage,” he said. 

Alamosa County, with a population of 16,500, has one of the highest jail incarceration rates in Colorado, one that is well above twice the national average. In 1970, there were three people in the county jail for every 10,000 county residents between the ages of 15 and 64. In 2013, the rate was 82 per 10,000, more than double the statewide average of 33—a 2,830 percent-increase. Alamosa County is 49 percent white and 46 percent Latino, with an economy based largely on agriculture. It is also one of Colorado’s poorest counties: 35 percent of people there are living below the poverty line. Southern Colorado has faced intertwined issues of poverty, incarceration, and addiction for years, and Alamosa County is no exception. “It’s heroin’s fault,” one attorney told me, “and there’s a lack of resources here to combat the problem.” Jail has become the de facto response to both mounting drug use and mental health problems, particularly for people who are not able to access private treatment. Between 2014 and 2015, the rate at which people were charged with felonies jumped 26 percent in Alamosa County. Between 2015 and 2016, it rose another 53 percent. Many people are sent to the jail for drug and drug-related charges. At the same time, many people are sent to jail for not being able to pay fines—they are, in effect, held in Alamosa County Jail for being poor.  

Iob Pueblo Highway

The ACLU of Colorado released a report last year detailing rampant abuse in the Alamosa Municipal Court that has effectively rendered the Alamosa County jail a debtor’s prison. One judge, in particular, routinely denied poor people in Alamosa their constitutional right to an attorney, while imposing unreasonable—and in many cases unpayable—fines and fees for minor charges like trespassing and petty theft. He then jailed nearly everyone who was too poor to pay. The ACLU’s report documented many other cases of poor people being locked up because of their poverty. The aforementioned judge has since retired, and the City of Alamosa recently moved to decriminalize many municipal infractions, which would remove jail time from the equation. 

Yet Alamosa County is renovating and expanding their jail. The current facility was built to hold a maximum of 48 people, but regularly holds around 100. When I spoke with a captain at the jail earlier this year, there were 101 people being held “in house,” and 24 more people incarcerated for the county in neighboring jurisdictions. There are 76 new beds planned for the fall of 2018, as well as 10 to 12 new staff positions at the jail. This expansion will be funded by a portion of a voter-supported sales tax. And while it is possible that a bigger jail may alleviate the suffering and indignity of acute overcrowding in the short term, it also represents an investment in incarceration—rather than in sorely needed community-based treatment and resources. The expansion is a measure of the degree to which jail has become the default response to a wide range of social and economic problems.

Kirk Taylor worked as a patrolman in Alamosa in the late 1980s, and was the patrol partner of Robert Jackson, the current Alamosa sheriff. Since 2007, Taylor has served as the sheriff of Pueblo County, population 163,000. Sheriff Taylor runs the most overcrowded jail in the state, despite his attempts to decrease the number of people incarcerated there. He no longer holds people serving state prison sentences, which many jails do to bring in extra money and fill holes in county budgets. He has also refused to hold people sentenced to jail time for low-level municipal offenses. Yet the jail incarceration rate in Pueblo County has gone from 24 per 10,000 in 1989 to 59 per 10,000 in 2014. The incarceration rate for women in the county has changed even more dramatically, from 1 per 10,000 in 1970 to 30 per 10,000 in 2014. In 1983, there was typically one woman locked up in the Pueblo County Jail on any given day. In 2014, there were 157. The rise in female incarceration in Pueblo County reflects the rising number of incarcerated women across Colorado.

The jail itself is a hulking, five-story brick tower in the City of Pueblo’s downtown. It was built in the early 1980s with a capacity of 189 and was quickly filled. In 2002, there were 513 people incarcerated at the jail. In 2006, the county built a new wing on the jail, which added 320 beds and more than doubled the overall capacity. “When they built that jail [in 1980], it was supposed to be the greatest, newest thing,” an older man in Pueblo told me. “Glass instead of bars. Electronic doors. But it’s a jail.”

Iob Pueblo Justice Plaza

“We were at maximum capacity when I took office [in 2007],” Taylor said. Since then, the jail population has continued to rise. As is the case in Alamosa, opioid use has reached epidemic proportions in Pueblo County, which had the highest rate of fatal overdoses in the state in 2015. Incarcerated people sleep along the edges of the cells, often triple bunked, and the women’s section is particularly crowded. Sheriff Taylor is eager to talk with anyone about the challenges of running the jail in these circumstances and, along with others in the county government, has been advocating for building a new and bigger jail. The voters of the county, however, have decided otherwise. 

Pueblo is still a steel town, despite the fact that employment in steel has considerably diminished in the area over the last 40 years. For most of the city’s history, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) was the main employer. Located near the coal fields of Southern Colorado, the steel mills in Pueblo used to employ tens of thousands of people. The city is about 52 percent Latino, and the white population in Pueblo reflects the entrance of German, Italian, Irish, and other workers into the area’s steel industry at the turn of the last century. CF&I sold the Pueblo holdings to Oregon Steel Mills in 1983, after the steel crash of the late 1970s, and in 2007 the Russian Evraz Group bought them. These days, some 1,200 people work in what remains of the mill, mostly recycling scrap metal. Pueblo remains largely blue-collar, reminiscent of many small rustbelt cities, and there are quite a few Steelers fans, despite the 1,400 miles that separate the city from Pittsburgh. The county voted for Donald Trump in the last election, only the third time a Republican has won the county in a presidential election since 1928. Alamosa County voted Democrat in 2016, and has only voted Republican in a presidential election twice during the last century.

Iob Pueblo Road

The three biggest employers in Pueblo, according to a long-time resident and former journalist whom I spoke with, used to be the steel mill, the chemical plant, and the state mental hospital. All three have diminished the size of their workforce during the past few decades. On the campus of the contracted state mental hospital, there is now a women’s prison. People from Pueblo work in the prison, and others commute to Cañon City and neighboring Florence where there are eight more state prisons, as well as the ADX Supermax Federal Prison. As employment in steel and coal has diminished, prison employment has increased both in scale and in relative importance within the county. 

Pueblo County voters have had two recent opportunities to vote for the construction of a larger jail—in 2015 and 2017—and have rejected jail expansion on each occasion. In 2017, the sales tax issue that went to voters was supposed to generate $150 million over 30 years to both build a bigger jail, with possible room for expansion, and to convert the current jail to a detox facility focusing on opioid addiction. The sales tax increase was rejected by 54 percent of the voters. Why didn’t the jail tax pass? That depends on who you ask. 

For people who work in the crowded jail, the problem seems to be that people just do not care about the conditions of confinement experienced by the poorest residents of Pueblo, or about the dangerous work environment for guards. As undersheriff J.R. Hall told me, “People here don’t care about the jail. They think that the conditions here don’t matter.” “There is a lot of political apathy,” Sheriff Taylor said.

Iob Pueblo Creek

People I spoke with around town told me a different story. “They need a new treatment center, not a jail,” one man said. “People voted against that new jail because we don’t want a new jail. This is a poor place; there’s a drug problem like all these poor places across the country. We don’t need a new jail.” 

“People are tired of putting money into this same system instead of investing in the actual development of the community,” one man told me in his small shop in downtown Pueblo. “People voted against the jail because they didn’t want a bigger jail, not because they are against developing the city…. When I come into a new place I look for the newest, tallest, nicest building. And that way you can see what the priorities are there. What’s the newest and tallest building here? That justice center. The police station. The jail.”

In contrast to the difficulties in the local jails, the State of Colorado prison system has, in recent years, implemented reforms that have closed prisons. Taylor argues that recent reforms at the state level have done much to increase pressure on local jails. “Colorado has touted this ‘success,’ and I put that in quotes, across the board,” said Taylor. “They closed three prisons over the last 10 years, and they came in and were going to close a fourth…. Fantastic. But guess who’s getting that cost shifted to them? The locals [counties].” Sheriff Taylor described what he called “the California model” in Colorado; prison reform led by devolution that shifted incarcerated people, and costs, into county jails. “The biggest overall thing that I can say, in my 30 years of experience, is that... jails used to just be jails, and over the past 10 years… jails have slowly been melded together with prisons.” The number of people sentenced to prison in Colorado, however, is now projected to rise again, and the state is considering opening once-closed prisons, including a private facility that was built in Huerfano County, the county between Pueblo and Alamosa. The state legislature has declined to authorize funding to reopen the facilities, instead asking the Department of Corrections to find ways to reduce the number of people being held in prison.

Iob Pueblo Jail

Against the high, mountainous landscapes of Colorado, communities both large and small are dealing with the burden of high and rising jail incarceration rates, and they are being presented with a choice: to build or not to build. In this context of worsening and crowded conditions, jail construction continues to move forward in Alamosa, and is being considered elsewhere. Yet the people of Pueblo have decided, twice now, that they do not want to invest their collective resources into more jail. Perhaps they are holding out for something better, a real fix, one that does not present incarceration as the solution to drug use, alienation, and deteriorating social conditions, and one that does not pair investment in treatment with investment in jail. In the meantime, generations of poor people are cycling in and out of county jails across Southern Colorado. For the child who was born in the holding cell of the Alamosa County jail, the extent to which her community will invest in more of the same is still being contested.