For the fourth time in two years, the El Paso County jail was holding a record number of inmates last week.
On Tuesday, the jail reported it was adding beds to accommodate 1,717 inmates, 40 more than the previous record of 1,677 set in August 2018 and 120 shy of the maximum the jail can hold, 1,837.
And 163 more were on work release or being housed in other facilities, such as the state mental institute in Pueblo.
While the immediate crisis didn’t last long — Wednesday’s inmate total fell to 1,674 with some bonding out after the long holiday weekend — the Sheriff’s Office considers the jail numbers “critical.”
“We are well above the numbers that we should be at for our facility,” spokeswoman Natalie Sosa said, referring to the National Institute of Corrections recommendation that jails never exceed 80 percent of capacity to ensure options to separate inmates along stipulated guidelines.
By that calculation, El Paso’s jail shouldn’t exceed 1,470 inmates, a figure that doesn’t even cover those accused of felony charges — 1,533 inmates on Tuesday. As the only jail in the county, it houses offenders across eight law enforcement agencies.
Officials fear the growing population presents a safety risk by increasing the likelihood of fights and assaults in the jail.
In July of 2017, just before the jail population hit a record high for the first time in the past two years, the department reported there had been 36 inmate attacks on deputies and 62 inmate-on-inmate attacks in the first seven months of the year. Last year, there were 80 attacks on deputies, resulting in 18 injuries, and 292 attacks between fellow inmates, with 157 injuries, Sheriff’s Office records showed.
In the first two months of this year, deputies have reported 13 attacks, with one injury, and 33 inmate-on-inmate attacks, with 16 injuries.
Aside from safety, the crammed jail also makes it harder to segregate inmates involved in the same case or who require a solitary room.
Sheriff Bill Elder has long said that expanding the jail or building a new one isn’t a feasible option, so the office is trying to reduce numbers in other ways.
The jail stopped accepting first-time misdemeanor offenders in 2005, unless the charge requires mandatory incarceration, such as some domestic violence allegations, or if the person has a warrant for failing to appear in court. On Tuesday, there were 290 inmates awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges.
The Sheriff’s Office also launched a Behavioral Health Connect Unit to help divert those suffering from mental health issues away from jail after now-retired Detention Bureau Chief Mitch Lincoln estimated in 2017 that between 60 percent to75 percent of jail inmates have some degree of mental illness.
The office said it’s also working with the courts to find ways to release eligible inmates quicker, and supporting jail programs aimed at preparing inmates for life in the community, which it believes will reduce recidivism. Still, at least 777 inmates were listed as “non-bondable” Tuesday, meaning they cannot be released.
“I am committed to working with members of the courts, other law enforcement agencies, and community leaders to find alternative solutions to the growing inmate population,” Elder said in the news release.
He has not said what those solutions may be.
The jail lists no inmates as being held related to immigration issues because of a court injunction, but Sosa said even without it the jail couldn’t support ICE holds because the population is already too high.