Skeptical public continues to question officials over jail

“I’m tired of having stuff crammed down my throat”

While the county moves ahead with its plan to finance construction of a new detention center and public works facility, the Board of County Commissioners and county manager Matthew Birnie continue to battle the public’s perception that a new $8.7 million jail facility isn’t necessary. 




At a work session on Tuesday, March 23, there was an often-contentious airing of opinions from both sides of the debate that ended with the opposition going to the jail, at least for a look at the current facility.
The meeting started off like any other discussion of the jail, but this time it was Sheriff Rick Murdie laying out the myriad reasons the construction of a new jail is mandatory, not optional.
“Our first letter to the commissioners on the inadequacy of the jail was in 1987,” Murdie said. “Four studies have been done on the jail and all of them have basically said the same thing: It’s out of compliance.There are structural inadequacies that need to be addressed, there are security issues that need to be addressed. All four of the studies said we need a new jail.”
When the courthouse was renovated in the early 1970s, the Sheriff’s Department was told where they could put the jail, which left them with a poorly considered location. “The way it was constructed, the only way for it to be brought into compliance would be to tear it down and build from the ground up,” Murdie said.
He talked about how numerous studies have been done on the current facility to see if a renovation were possible, and each said it was not. When proponents pushed the possibility of adding onto the current jail, they met opposition from the community, which didn’t like the idea of a tax increase or the proposed location.
But right out of the gate, Betty Eberhardt wanted her point of view heard. She is one of the three members of a committee pushing to have an election to recall all three county commissioners based on their pursuit of a new jail. She believes the commissioners are ignoring the public’s wish to keep the county from spending tax dollars on a new jail.
“They’re ignoring us,” Eberhardt said after the meeting. She felt like the commissioners and county staff had neglected the [current jail] building until it fell into such disrepair that replacement was inevitable.
“I’m sick and tired of what’s going on in this town,” she said. “There always has to be something bigger and better. If they had just taken care of the jail as it needed it, they wouldn’t be in this position.”
After Eberhardt heard from Murdie that the jail would not be accepting inmates from outside the county as a source of revenue, she said, “I don’t understand why we have to get into this expensive bill and build this expansive jail when it’s just our county jail. We’ve got everything we need right here in this building—the courthouse and everything.”
Murdie pointed out that in a small community, the inmates at the jail might be one’s neighbors and keeping them in unsafe or unhealthy conditions is not appropriate. He also went through a list of high-profile or violent criminals who had made appearances in Gunnison County and needed a place in the jail.
“We realized that we may have an individual in jail today, but we’ll be rubbing shoulders with them in the supermarket tomorrow,” Murdie said. “With the summer tourism and ski area and the college, we have in the past and will continue to have people who need to be locked up. Unfortunately, those are the facts of life.”
Eberhardt wouldn’t accept the county’s arguments, even though she said she believes “Rick Murdie and Rick Besecker are two of the finest people I know. We ought to be proud to have them as sheriff and undersheriff.”
But her praise stops with the sheriffs. Eberhardt continued, “But what the commissioners are doing is terrible. I think they won’t accept any other ideas and I’m tired of having stuff crammed down my throat.”
But the alternatives to building a new jail that the commissioners heard at the work session were nothing new. Eberhardt repeatedly asked why they couldn’t convert the 44,000-square-foot courthouse entirely, or partially, into a jail. It was explained to her that there would be no room to put the offices that currently take up that space.
“We have a situation where the space the county has for offices has been fully utilized… but the thought of trying to use the footprint of this building and the other buildings for all of the things we need to do, including the new jail—there’s just not the space,” said commissioner Jim Starr.
Gunnison residents Gene Patterson and David Justice were concerned about the possibility that building a jail in the location the commissioners have chosen, on 14th Street, might damage the Cattlemen’s Days and other events at the fairgrounds down the road.
Commissioner Jim Starr responded, “If I thought for one second that this would jeopardize Cattlemen’s Days, I wouldn’t support it. But the reality is that Webster Hall on the Western State campus is closer to this jail than a new jail would be to the rodeo grounds.”
But the commissioners tried to make the crowd understand that it isn’t building a jail only because the old one is out of date or in a poor location. They said a new facility was the only option to stay in compliance and out of trouble with federal and state agencies.
Birnie also stressed the liability issues that the jail poses for the county. If an inmate or employee of the jail were injured as a result of the out-of-compliance conditions, the county would have to foot the bill to see a lawsuit through court.
“There is the liability of a lawsuit from either an inmate or an employee,” he said. “We’ve got studies from the late 80s … saying that this facility is inadequate. We’ve tinkered around inside the box there repeatedly, but we do not meet anything that approaches any standard for a correctional facility. We’ve been on those [lists] for 20 years, so we have no defense.”
Birnie also told the crowd that the county could be at risk of having local control taken over by an overseer appointed by a court, if there were ever serious questions raised about the jail’s condition.
“There are examples in this state and across the country of the [federal government] taking control of local finances, and they don’t much care, frankly, about what the citizens or their elected officials want,” he said. “That’s a real financial risk to the taxpayers of this county.”
Not only could the paper trail leading from the jail’s inadequacy be potentially damning evidence, as Birnie pointed out, it also creates a compelling argument for the construction of a new jail, as opposed to renovating the current Courthouse to house a renovated jail.
A 1999 study on the possibility of renovating the courthouse to accommodate a jail showed that there would be problems meeting requirements of the American Correctional Association and Americans with Disabilities Act and well as meeting “life safety issues.”
In an effort to show the opponents of the new jail why it was such a high priority to upgrade, Murdie offered to take a small group on a tour of the current detention center. So Murdie led a small group on a short tour of the jail.
“I was really glad to see it,” Eberhardt said. “You are going down into a dungeon and it’s obviously in need of some upgrades. But they just let it sit because they want a new jail.”
After viewing the exercise area of the jail, Eberhardt noticed some concrete that had disintegrated over the years. She pointed to it and asked, “Well, can’t you fix that?”
Another public hearing on the issue of the jail construction will take place on Wednesday, April 21 at 7 p.m. in the Fred Field Western Heritage Center.

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