Colorado prison and jail populations reaching pre-COVID levels or higher
Lindsey Toomer/Colorado Newsline
After the height of the pandemic led to state prisons and some county jails making policy changes to lower their inmate populations, some are back to average daily populations higher than those they saw before COVID-19.
At the state level, Colorado Department of Corrections spokesperson Annie Skinner said while inmate population counts are still down from where they were pre-pandemic, there has been an uptick in prison populations as of late. CDOC’s Monthly Population and Capacity Report shows that by the end of June 2019, the state had a total of 14,227 inmates. During the height of the pandemic populations thinned to as low as 10,636 in January 2021, but by the end of July 2022, the state had 12,510 people incarcerated.
“During the course of the pandemic our population numbers dropped due to a variety of factors including the pause/reduction in court proceedings and the need to limit transports from jails to prison to reduce the risk of introducing COVID into our prisons from the county jails,” Skinner said in an email.
Skinner said CDOC temporarily suspended jail intake while developing “robust protocols/requirements” for county jails before allowing limited intake. She said this reduction also helped the state properly quarantine and test inmates before sending them to another facility.
“CDOC is back to normal levels of jail intake,” Skinner said. “Our current increase in population numbers was expected given that the criminal justice system is back to normal operations and the backlog of cases are starting to move through the courts.”
In Boulder County, Sheriff Joe Pelle recently made the call to go back to arrest standards that are similar to those the department used before COVID.
“A lot of jails changed their standards during the height of COVID, especially the onset of the outbreak,” Pelle said. “We had employees on ventilators and in the ICU. We had sick inmates we had to take to the hospital, so we were in a pretty bad way.”
But Pelle said this has all changed over the last six months. While COVID is still around, those getting it are seeing mild cold and flu-like symptoms not requiring a trip to the hospital. Boulder County’s jails haven’t had any COVID restrictions since June, though they originally lifted them in April before reimplementing them.
While the stronger COVID restrictions were in place, some people who committed more serious offenses were issued a ticket instead of booked into jail, and many defendants have “a number of failure to appear warrants,” Pelle said. Now the jail is getting more backed up by individuals with multiple warrants.
“I think we will work through that just as a consequence of the courts reopening and all that, but for right now we’re really crowded, really busy,” Pelle said.
Pelle said Boulder County’s jail is essentially at capacity. The jails have about 540 beds, but they are all double-bunked, and Pelle said certain inmates have to be kept alone due to the nature of the crimes they committed. As of Aug. 31, Pelle said there were about 450 inmates in Boulder County, 18 of whom are sleeping on the floor in a gym.
“Once we get to between 450 and 485, and up to 500 maybe, we’re really at capacity,” Pelle said. “Where do you put the next person? Where do you put the next sick person? How do you keep sick people isolated? How do you keep gang rivals apart? I mean, it’s a very complicated issue.”
Alternatives to incarceration
Taylor Pendergrass, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said there were already too many incarcerated people pre-COVID, so seeing jail and prison populations going back to these numbers and higher is concerning.
“It was necessary during COVID to dramatically depopulate jails and prisons for the safety of incarcerated people, their families, people working in the facilities, and also communities where incarcerated people were circulating in and out,” Pendergrass said. “It was also an enormous opportunity to recognize that we could incarcerate far fewer people for much shorter amounts of time and really use it to accelerate the transition away from incarceration as our first, last and only resort and start really prioritizing other responses to our problems.”
Too many people are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, Pendergrass said, and he thinks there are other ways to keep communities safe without locking people up. He said alternatives to incarceration like restorative justice programs should see more popularity.
Pendergrass said the best way to reduce violent crime is to address the root causes, which is also the most cost-effective.
‘We want bad guys in jail’
In Douglas County, Undersheriff Dave Walcher said officials never changed their arrest or jailing standards amid the pandemic. He said they never refused warrants or arrests, so if a local police department wanted someone in jail, Douglas County would let them come to the facility.
“We have not changed our practices based upon COVID. We had the proper personal protective equipment. We segregated inmates when we needed to,” Walcher said. “At times, just like every other jail, we saw our COVID numbers come up and down, but we made a philosophical decision of we want bad guys in jail, and we’ll have to deal with COVID.”
Despite this, the county has still seen an increase in average daily population in its jails to levels higher than pre-COVID: Walcher said that in July 2021 the average daily population was 325 inmates, and a year later, in July, the average daily population was up 30% to 423 inmates.
“Probably the first six months of the year, we have averaged over 400 every month,” Walcher said. “I’ve only been with Douglas County about two years now, but it’s my understanding that these are with our highest jail populations really we’ve ever seen on average.”
Walcher said Douglas County tries to avoid having more than 80% of its beds occupied, so there is still space to move around inmates, but he said now it’s close to 70% or 80%. This creates difficulties for staffing, Walcher said, because one guard will be looking over 30 or 40 inmates as opposed to the typical 15-25.
Many aspects of the already-slow Colorado judicial system slowed down even more during the pandemic, and Walcher said this could have led to inmates being kept in jail longer than they usually might have. He also said with crime being up throughout the Denver metro area, there’s likely a combination of reasons why prison populations are growing.