Divide Hilton preparing for better times; Jail aggressively seeking federal prisoners

Critics have called it a “Built It and They Will Come” debacle, or more notably, a failed, “They Will Go to Jail” experiment.

Government officials label it as a big financial strain on the county coffers, but a needed resource.

And law enforcement authorities, meanwhile, say it is a modern, functioning facility that hasn’t resulted in any successful escapes or suicide attempts since the county took over the operation, and has even emerged as a model for other local jurisdictions.

Although opinions are mixed regarding its future, the 110-bed Teller County Jail, jokingly dubbed by locals as the “Divide Hilton,” which opened its doors in the fall of 1995, is reaching a turning point. “We are doing well under some very tough financial conditions,” said Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger, whose agency is responsible for manning the facility and trying to make it work financially as a county enterprise fund. That’s a tough assignment and one that could have been achieved much easier, according to officials, if local voters had approved a jail-related mill levy years back, or if leaders had built a smaller facility. But due to political and economic realities at the time, Teller voters originally denied a bid for a full-scale jail and justice center in Woodland Park. And with their alternatives diminishing, Teller commissioners then decided to build an expensive facility in Divide several years after a turn-of-the-century jailhouse in Cripple Creek was shut down by the feds.

Regardless of past history or previous mistakes, the sheriff has now embarked on an aggressive campaign to court more federal prisoners from such agencies as the U.S. Marshall’s Office, the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement Agency (ICE) and even certain military outlets. His mission is to fill up a jail that has experienced a growing debt, while not jeopardizing safety. While concerns have mounted about the prison’s annual losses, the facility has recorded a top-notch reputation as a jail that has recorded relatively minor disputes among inmates and hasn’t had a single escape attempt since 1999–the year the county took over the operations.

But unfortunately, financial woes at the jail have gotten the attention of Teller leaders, who favor the new pro-marketing approach taken by Ensminger. “The main problem with the jail is that it has lost money for 12 out of the last 14 years,” said Teller County Commission Chairman Jim Ignatius, who was often critical of the stand of former Sheriff Kevin Dougherty in running the facility. “You can’t just continue to operate like that. The original financial model (for running the jail) was flawed. But that was the cards we were dealt. We have to try to cut that deficit.”

According to the county’s 2011 budget, the jail is projected to incur a total deficit of $3.6 million and will require a $600,000 investment from the general fund to make ends meet. Every year, the county has to fork over $460,000 in annual payments, resulting from certificate of participation bond monies that funded the construction of the facility. And that doesn’t even count the $1 million-plus in annual costs for running the facility.

However, county leaders are cautiously optimistic of new inmate totals, indicating a definite increase in nightly prisoners, a byproduct of efforts to attract more ICE and federal inmates and to market the jail better. “We are doing the best we can,” said Ensminger.

In order to get more ICE inmates, the facility has to receive the blessing of key federal corrections officials. According to CorrectionsOne, an online resource for corrections officers across the country, the federal government nationwide has been using fewer federal facilities and is shipping more inmates to county prisons. This trend, though, hasn’t quite developed in Colorado.

In fact, the county must compete with a big, 1,000-plus-bed facility outside Denver. Plus, it has to overcome the jail’s out-of-the-way location. “We are not in the best spot geographically,” admitted Undersheriff Stan Bishop, who served as the head commander for the jail for more than 10 years.

Most ICE prisoners are illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. As a result, these types of prisoners are often placed in facilities near resort towns or farming communities. “We have to take what we can get,” said Ensminger.

In addition, the costs for running county jails aren’t cheap. The county commissioners recently approved a nearly $320,000 annual contract for health care services for inmates. Prisoners at the facility have access to a doctor once a week and have nurses available at the facility on a daily basis. “They have 24-hour medical coverage,” stated Bishop.

And with more federal inmates, the facility’s 28-employee jailer staff must be well versed in a variety of languages. “We have people on our staff who are fluent in Spanish, and even have one employee who speaks Vietnamese,” related the sheriff.

Despite these challenges in running the facility, county leaders see better times ahead for the “Divide Hilton.”

“The jail is definitely doing better,” admitted Ignatius. “He (Sheriff Mike Ensminger) has done everything we have asked him to do. It’s been refreshing. I am very satisfied with what has occurred.”

During the highly competitive race for sheriff last year, Ignatius said he stressed the critical fiscal problems associated at the jail with the two competing candidates (Ensminger and Mark Manriquez). “There is a lot at stake for the county. Both candidates understood that and since Mike was elected sheriff, he has responded very well.”

Ignatius cites statistics of recent months that have indicated nearly a three-fold increase in inmate totals, compared to 2010.
According to Teller County Finance Director Laurie Litwin, the jail recorded 935 prisoner days in January, 2011. That compares with 795 for the same month a year ago.

Bishop estimates that the jail has been averaging between 50 and 60 inmates a night during the winter, which is much better than last year. But during its peak times in the summer, he is projecting that the facility could house more than 120 inmates a night. That would require putting three inmates in some cells, and even bringing in special beds.

“Under a best-case scenario, we would like to have 100 external prisoners housed there,” said Litwin, in describing the ideal formula for the county financially. But she admits that reality isn’t likely under the current financial climate and with larger federal and state facilities near Denver.

Ignatius agrees that the secret to the jail’s success financially hinges on one main factor: more non-county overnight guests. “We have made all the adjustments we can from the expense side of the jail operation. We can’t cut costs anymore. We just need more revenue.”

No escapes or major problems

Ensminger says he understands the commissioners’ concerns, but believes the county is in much better shape than other areas. And under the new prison reality in Colorado, virtually every county must now equip itself with a jail and then foot the bill for running the facility. Some officials complain that this is a tough path for county governments to follow. “About the only counties who don’t have jails are very small,” said Bishop, who estimates that Colorado now sports more than 50 county jails.

And while wanting to reap the benefits of the ICE program, described by some corrections experts as the financial savior of county jails in rural areas, sheriff authorities want to maintain the “Divide Hilton’s” reputation as a safe, quality facility. Sheriff leaders speak highly of the fact that not a single escape attempt has occurred since they assumed the reins of the jailhouse.

A nearly successful burst for freedom by a former inmate, wanted for murder for a heinous killing in Victor, is what sparked the county’s involvement in running the facility in the summer of 1999. The prisoner merely walked out of a door left partially open in the gymnasium and then scaled a fence. The inmate would have actually gotten away, except he suffered an asthma attack and collapsed in someone’s back yard. That incident occurred shortly after a suicide attempt at the facility.

As a result, former Sheriff Frank Fehn cancelled a contract with CiviGenics, a Massachusetts-based private company that ran many prisons throughout the country, including the one in Teller, and opted to have the sheriff’s department take over the facility.

The change was welcomed by many county leaders, who often felt uneasy about having a private contractor operate the jail.
“It is a great, clean jail,” admitted Ignatius, who maintains that he never has objected to the quality of the operation.

Bishop attributes the jail’s success in avoiding disputes to a great staff, a clear set of policies and rules and a modern, one-story facility.

It certainly isn’t country club living, but it won’t compare with the tent city antics of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona.
“We get a lot of compliments,” said Bishop. “Many inmates say they like our facility,” said the undersheriff. “They don’t have any problems as long as they follow the rules.”

Inmates, for example, are allowed two hours of recreation and gymnasium activity per day. However, jail guests are not permitted to go outside at any time. During a recent tour, a group of inmates were spotted playing a hearty game of basketball. Nope, Carmelo Anthony won’t face any rivals at the Teller jailhouse, but the basketball participants recently displayed some impressive hoop skills.

Another group were engaged in a competitive game of chess at an inmate pod lounge area.

The jail has stern discipline rules, such as no graffiti in any cells, no smoking and stern policies about walking along certain lines when moving from one part of the facility to another. “We own them once they get here,” said Bishop.

The facility also features a state-of-the-art control center with specialized camera and audio equipment that can focus on detailed activity and even monitor conversations occurring throughout the entire jail.

Sheriff Deputy Nathan Williams says he has probably only overseen a handful of disputes in four and a half years at working at the jail. “You know when there is going to be a problem,” said Williams. “You can feel the tension,” he added, and described the command center as an ideal area for monitoring activity. He says the main stress-prone times are during the summer, when the jail is often filled beyond saturation points. That’s often when the facility has more county prisoners.

Besides a main control room, the jail features a women’s inmate area, a library, inmate lounge/hangout spots, a kitchen, interview and advisement rooms, an accounting office, medical exam areas, laundry facility and much more. It doesn’t look that much different from other major large-scale businesses.

Gone are the days of jailers purchasing TV dinners for inmates and some of the more informal policies that operated, when the county ran a small historic jailhouse in Cripple Creek. “That was like comparing an old Volkswagen to a new Cadillac,” quipped Bishop, who first worked at the old jail, when he was first employed with the sheriff’s department. The feds, though, weren’t impressed and basically ordered the county to build a new facility shortly after gambling started in Cripple Creek.

One of the jail’s big advantages is that it primarily caters to inmates on the move. Ensminger estimates that 80 percent of the inmates are held there for less than 30 days. And the vast majority of these prisoners are only there for less than 72 hours.

As for county inmates, Ensminger cites drunk driving, burglaries and domestic violence as the main crimes that lead to locals getting locked up at the facility. And like most prisons, the Divide jail has a good percentage of return customers.

To date, the sheriff hasn’t seen that much difficulty in having county, state and federal inmates mingling together at the same facility. However, the county and federal inmates are often separated in different pod areas.

“We really haven’t had any problems,” said the sheriff.

Also, the jail hasn’t featured that many serious criminals, such as those charged with murder. It did house the infamous Texas Seven fugitives for a brief period, who tried to unsuccessfully fight extradition for several weeks.

As for the future of the jail, law officers don’t see any prospects for expansion, especially in today’s economic climate.
But eventually, if the county continues to grow, the day could occur when the jail only caters to county prisoners. Also, officials are expecting a banner summer at the jail.

“When the economy gets worse, crime goes up,” said Ensmnger.

But under any circumstances, local law officers don’t see the facility ever falling into the hands of private operators. “That trend is over,” said Bishop.

County officials, though, say the one trend they are hoping for the most involves generating more non-county guests.