The lobby in the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center is small and unassuming. Aside from the bonds officer sitting behind a plexiglass window to the right of the entrance, and the metal scanner down the hall, it feels like any other waiting room. A few rows of chairs face a television screen playing an awful daytime-television “Law & Order” knockoff. There’s an American flag perched above a frame holding an assortment of trophies and memorabilia. It’s clean, quiet, and not particularly noteworthy.
Nothing about the lobby would suggest that 1,700 inmates are housed behind the metal detector down the hall, in a chaotic and confusing series of interconnected wards. As one passes through the metal scanner after checking in with the receptionist, the pleasant cleanliness of the lobby gives way to an industrial, sunless world of seemingly unending concrete hallways, often filled with grim-faced corrections officers scuttling hastily past while muttering urgently into their radios.
The jail describes itself as progressive, both in regards to its treatment of prisoners and the rewards-based incentive system in place that allows inmates to move to better conditions as they demonstrate stable behavior. However, the jail is still grappling with serious problems. By their own admission, it is serially understaffed and often ill-equipped to deal with the myriad of obstacles that are presented on a daily basis.
“The vast majority of people in here are just doing their time,” said Lieutenant Charlie Cull, who works as a corrections officer in the jail. “They’re good people who just made a mistake.”
To illustrate this point, Cull shared a story of a young inmate who was serving six months in the jail for burglary. The young man was charged for breaking into his stepfather’s house.
The larger story is that this stepfather had been abusive, regularly beating the young man’s mother. His mother escaped, but left behind some pictures and videotapes with sentimental value; when her son went back to retrieve them, he ended up with a felony charge.
The jail’s progressive system, says Lt. Cull, is designed to make time for inmates like that as enjoyable and safe as possible. While inmates begin their sentence in highly restricted environment, they are expeditiously moved to better conditions upon demonstrating good behavior, wherein they are given increased access to amenities such as board games, radios, and significantly more liberty to roam freely and socialize with one another.
It wasn’t always that way. Until relatively recently, the jail was considerably less judicious about their approach to inmate misbehavior, and employed solitary confinement as a punitive response to problematic inmates.
“We don’t do that anymore,” said Lt. Cull.
The El Paso County jail’s reforms come about at a time when there is a growing national discussion about prison and criminal justice reform. For some, the progressive incentive system is one potential way to make the criminal justice system more humane.
Still, Lt. Cull admits, the jail is far from perfect. While the relatively stable and well-adjusted inmates benefit from the progressive system, it fails to address the needs of the vast swathes of inmates struggling with mental illness, many of whom lack the tools to demonstrate stability and therefore remain stuck in darker, less humane wards.
In these wards, life is considerably darker. Inmates thrash, scream, bang on their cell windows, and often physically attack prison guards as well as one another. Inmates hurling their own feces at passersby is a regular occurence. The wards are in near-perpetual lockdown. For many, it’s traumatizing – all the more so, considering their pre-existing mental disorders.
These wards are also extraordinarily violent. Physical confrontations are a daily experience, often resulting from unbelievably minor provocations: something as simple as prolonged eye contact could end in broken bones or worse.
“We don’t have a lot of dignity left,” says Tony, an inmate at the jail. “When someone challenges the last bit of your manhood, you lose it.”
These daily violent eruptions leave everyone on edge, corrections officers and inmates alike. The result is a perpetually hostile environment with little hope of improvement, in stark contrast with the jail’s more lenient wards.
For many, El Paso County’s jail is a hopeful development in the push for prison reform: its progressive incentive process and relatively humane conditions are an improvement from the traditional prison system’s punitive approach to criminal justice. However, a visit to the jail reveals a more nuanced picture. The system clearly still fails for many inmates. But it’s a start.
sustainable institution. In a final message to students, Provost Townsend said, “When you leave here, take a moment to sit in reflection, and commit to a better world.”