El Paso County jail inmates know how to unlock doors inside the facility, and they regularly free themselves from cells, according to the sheriff.

“Inmates are able to defeat door locks on a routine basis,” Sheriff Bill Elder told county commissioners at a recent meeting. “So we’re looking at processes on how to shore that up.”

Those who have left their confines have assaulted deputies on “several” occasions, a few of which resulted in injuries, sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby said Friday in an email to The Gazette.

For staff at the crowded facility, the issue adds to the hazards of the already difficult and dangerous job of managing about 1,600 people held there on any given day.

But the problem isn’t new.

Inmates were using a similar trick under the watch of former Sheriff Terry Maketa.

In 2008, Maketa shared with county commissioners a video of inmates using a plastic comb to prevent a door lock from securing. The problem had come to light after an inmate was beaten in his cell while others in the facility were supposed to be on lockdown.

More than a decade ago, the county spent roughly $100,000 replacing locks and some doors and door jambs on many of the jail’s cells.

Since then, more improvements have been made, Kirby said. But she declined to elaborate, saying providing further information “could significantly compromise the safety and security” of jail staff and inmates.

“We are exploring all viable options taking into consideration the effectiveness of the locks, the possibility of new doors and the cost of each,” Kirby said. Those investments could be anywhere from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars, she said.

In the past few years, the Sheriff’s Office has seen a rise in reports of inmates tampering with locks and security devices. There were 126 such reports in 2017 and 200 last year.

Assaults on staff also increased during the two-year period, from 67 in 2017 to about 80 in 2018. Thirty-two of last year’s assaults on jail employees caused injuries, the report says.

Elder cited a more recent example during the Oct. 17 meeting: An unruly inmate kicked open a cell door and charged a deputy.

As county commissioners prepare to adopt the 2020 budget, Elder and other department heads have presented their funding needs. But the sheriff didn’t ask for more money to solve the lock problem or make other specific budget requests this year.

He noted, however, that tougher conversations are likely coming in future years as the jail’s equipment and the building itself continues to age.

“Much like with roads, when you’ve got potholes, we can patch the problems temporarily, but we’re going to get to a point here in the next few years where we’re going to start having discussions about how to keep the building from becoming functionally obsolete,” he told commissioners.

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