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La Plata County officials tour jail

Commissioners briefed on detention center upgrades, new armored vehicle
La Plata County Sheriffs Office Capt. Ed Aber, who oversees the county jail, briefs La Plata County commissioners Matt Salka, left, Marsha Porter-Norton and Clyde Church on Tuesday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

La Plata County commissioners toured the La Plata County Jail on Tuesday where they received an overall report of jail-related issues, which include new security measures, inmate transportation challenges as a result of staffing shortages, and the need for a local and secured mental health facility to provide beds for inmates not suited for regular jail.

The annual visit by commissioners to the jail is mandated by state law, but did not happen last year because of COVID-19 concerns.

Commissioners were greeted by La Plata County Sheriff’s Capt. Ed Aber, who runs the jail. The tour was scheduled to begin with Aber giving commissioners a briefing, followed by a tour of the facility and a look at the new and adjacent coroner’s office.

But the Sheriff Office’s new tactical vehicle, parked in a corner of the jail parking lot just before the meeting, took center stage as commissioners arrived. The Darth Vader-black Ford F-550 diesel with top-turret, state-of-the-art camera system, and attachable spear-point battering ram looked like something from a Batman movie.

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office’s new 19,500-pound, 67-power stroke tactical vehicle can withstand a missile-attack, run on flat tires and travel 80 mph on the highway. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The $350,000 vehicle was specially built in Ontario, Canada, and is one of two tactical multipurpose response and rescue vehicles requested by the Sheriff’s Office to replace two older armored vehicles already donated to other agencies. The vehicle, which has room for two people in front and eight in the back, can be used for threat responses and natural disaster rescues. The vehicle is capable of traveling 80 mph, whereas the smaller of the two previous armored vehicles tapped out at 40 mph.

Commissioners approved the funding for the vehicle out of their usual funding cycle to ensure the safety of law enforcement, said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton.

Once commissioners finished kicking tires and taking in that new armored-vehicle smell, they gathered inside for Aber’s briefing.

The total jail budget for 2022 was $9,225,812. The largest expense is for personnel. The second largest is for inmate medical, dental and behavioral health services, which totaled $1,252,392. A behavioral health grant of $685,047, helps offset that cost.

The new $350,000 Terradyne MPV tactical vehicle was built from the “ground up” in Ontario, Canada. It will be shared when necessary with other counties through mutual-aid agreements. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Overall, the detention budget, which includes a security team for the La Plata County Courthouse, other county operated facilities and the Alternatives to Incarceration Team, is the largest budget item at the Sheriff’s Office.

In 2023, personnel costs will continue to rise as the Sheriff’s Office increases all staff salaries to a living wage. The detention deputy entry wage has increased from $19.99 per hour in 2020 to $27 in 2023.

The average daily inmate population in the jail during 2022 was 149. But the jail booked more than 2,000 inmates during the year.

“Prior to COVID, we were seeing a population increase of 13% a year in the jail,” Aber said. “COVID was a reset, but now we are going to see numbers start creeping up again.”

The Terradyne MVP is designed to withstand attacks, fires and floods, and can accommodate eight armored deputies in back and two up front. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Three jail escapes since 2019, one that led to the shooting of a Farmington police officer, put added security at the forefront of needed jail upgrades. La Plata County set aside $440,000 in the 2022 budget to replace and repair fencing surrounding the jail and toward the construction of holding areas to contain inmates outside the jail in the event of emergencies.

The most pressing security upgrades have been completed. Those included new razor wire-topped fencing on the perimeter, a new gate, additional outdoor cameras and an elimination of 90-degree angles that created blind spots – at least where possible.

“We hope this reduces temptation,” Aber said. “It certainly doesn’t eliminate it.”

It was estimated that $453,000 would cover all the needed security upgrades, including the outdoor holding pens, but COVID-19 and supply-chain issues drove up the cost so there is a shortfall, Aber told commissioners.

One-hundred-and-thirty-five security cameras monitor goings on inside the facility.

“This is a tremendous improvement,” Commissioner Clyde Church said. “I’m so proud of you guys.”

La Plata County Sheriff’s Capt. Ed Aber talks with county commissioners about the high-risk suicide holding room during a tour of the jail on Tuesday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Transportation was another issue touched on by Aber. The jail made about 3,000 inmate trips last year with a designated transport team of six deputies. That included taking inmates back and forth from court, visits to the hospital, retrievals from other jurisdictions, and transportation to secured mental health facilities in Denver, Pueblo or Grand Junction.

Because of that, deputies often found themselves on-call to assist in transport during off-hours, which were often required by mandates concerning how long inmates can be held in custody before having to appear before a judge.

But eliminating the need for on-call transport won’t end until staffing shortages are filled. Vacancies have been reduced by 50%, but the jail is still down seven to 10 staff members – a fact that turned Aber’s attention to local housing costs, which throws a monkey wrench into attracting deputies. Some deputies must commute from towns as far as Aztec and Farmington because of housing costs in La Plata County.

Providing bed space or housing for inmates with mental health issues has been another challenge. They either have to be segregated from other inmates or transferred to an aforementioned facility out of town. In the past, finding that needed bed could take eight months. It is now down to a four-month wait.

Commissioners said they are awaiting a feasibility study due back in June that addresses getting a secured mental health facility in La Plata County.

“Having mental health and drug rehab options are important from a commissioner standpoint,” Commissioner Matt Salka said.

Aber would also like to see the number of bookings decline. He pointed to court-mandated alternatives to incarceration, such as weekly drug testing and other rehabilitative efforts. The sheer volume of bookings creates a revolving door at the jail that puts offenders back on the street to commit more crime, he said.

Salka and Porter-Norton shared their takeaways after the tour.

The detention center is well-managed and well-run, Porter-Norton said.

“The sheriff and Capt. Aber and his team do a good job,” she said. “I am particularly impressed how they care about people and want to help them both inside the jail and upon release.”

She also noted the importance of the new security fence in keeping the community safe.

Making sure detention center staff members have the tools needed to accomplish their jobs was Salka’s biggest takeaway, he said.

He noted the new tactical vehicle’s ability to keep emergency responders safe while also enabling them to reach places much faster than older vehicles allowed, which he described as neither economical nor practical.

“It was great to hear that morale was high compared to other years in the past,” Salka said. “I was pleased to have on-call pay implemented in this budget year.”

Communication between commissioners and the Sheriff’s Office is “very good,” he said, and commissioners make sure to communicate any potential legislation that might impact or benefit the agency.

“La Plata County Jail is seen as a leader when it comes to jail standards and surpassing state requirements,” Salka said.

Both Salka and Porter-Norton complemented the new coroner’s facility for its “dignity and professionalism” as well as the upgrades for cold storage and the private viewing room for families.