Alamosa County completes jail addition

ALAMOSA — Happy to have more room but not happy they have to use it, Alamosa County officials and sheriff’s staff welcomed the public on Friday to view the new Alamosa County Detention Center addition before it begins filling up with inmates in coming weeks.

Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson said the first inmates would be moved into the new addition on Tuesday, Oct. 9.

The expansion adds 64 new beds as well as other inmate areas and a new state-of-the-art kitchen.

Sheriff Jackson explained that this is the first of three phases, with the remainder to be completed by next spring. Future phases will include improvements to the old jail such as replacing doors and heating/air conditioning systems, new paint and new commercial laundry. Finally, the booking area will be renovated, the sheriff said.

The sheriff said the project began in 2013 with the examination of the needs of the community for a new courthouse and more room for a burgeoning jail population. “We had an aging courthouse, an aging jail,” he said.

He and others speaking at the Friday open house thanked the voters of Alamosa County for approving a 1-cent sales tax for a new courthouse and jail addition. Funding for the jail project is also coming from the Department of Local Affairs, the sheriff added.

Local company Van Iwaarden Builders was awarded the contract for the jail addition project, Bill Van Gieson served as project superintendent and Larry Schreiner was the county’s project manager. Speakers on Friday thanked all of the local contractors from electricians to painters who assisted with the project. Sheriff Jackson said more than 70 percent of the money for this project was spent locally.

The sheriff also thanked Chief District Judge Pattie Swift for repeatedly meeting with the public in various meetings to educate voters about the need for the new courthouse and jail addition, and he thanked Alamosa County Administrator Gigi Dennis for staying on top of the project throughout its construction.

Sheriff Jackson also recognized Undersheriff Shawn Woods and Lieutenant Jeremy DeHerrera for their efforts in this project.

“Hopefully this is the last time anyone sees the inside,” Eric Van Iwaarden said before tours of the new facility Friday afternoon. He thanked Alamosa County for the opportunity to construct the addition and particularly acknowledged Van Gieson and Schreiner for their efforts.

Van Iwaarden said more than 32 years ago Van Iwaarden Builders constructed the original jail.

He added, “I am grateful our company can now say that we have built the addition here … We are proud the county trusted us with this job.”

Van Iwaarden added that he hoped the building would last for decades to come.

Retired Chief District Judge O. John Kuenhold recalled that he had recently been selected to the district court bench at the time the county built the last jail and he had served as county attorney during the bond issue.

He also recalled that when he first moved to Alamosa about 50 years ago, the sheriff was Ben Phillips who had two deputies and a jailer and beds for eight inmates upstairs above the jailer’s quarters in the old courthouse. Kuenhold said Alamosa was lucky to have a man of Phillips’ character serving as sheriff at that time and is equally lucky today to have Jackson as sheriff. Kuenhold said this project would not have happened without his efforts and those of Judge Swift.

Kuenhold and others talked about some of the reasons the county needs a jail this size, such as drug addictions and related crimes, mental illness and homelessness, “and yes, there are people who are flat out criminals. They have found that’s the best way for them to make a living.”

Judge Kuenhold recognized the sheriff’s deputies and police officers who try to help people who do not necessarily want to be helped and sometimes come into the jail facility with medical issues such as Hepatitis C and even cancer. He said running a jail this size or of any size is a formidable task.

The judge added that this expanded facility would provide greater safety for those residing and working in the jail.

Judge Swift recounted that in 2012 the court performed a study determining that a more secure, safer and updated facility was needed. The Alamosa County Justice Center Task Force was born out of that effort, and the task force worked with Alamosa county and city officials and court and sheriff personnel. Judge Swift said that the recommendations from that task force were not only for an upgraded court facility but also upgraded jail facility. It made sense to move forward with a combined effort rather than separating the two issues, she added.

The “One Cent for Justice” campaign followed, and Alamosa County voters approved  a sales tax “to make sure we have a safe and adequate county jail and safe and adequate justice center.”

“It’s a great day for Alamosa County,” she said.

Alamosa County Commissioner Helen Sigmond said although it was a great day for the county it was also a sad day that the county needed this facility. She said she has worked hard on the drug and addiction issues to decrease the number of people who wind up in the jail. She said Sheriff Jackson has said about 90 percent of the inmates in the jail are there for drug-related issues.

Sigmond also pointed out the increased costs the county has experienced in housing inmates outside the county because it did not have space in the current detention facility. She said that cost in 2014 was $135,000, in 2015 increased to $193,000 and in 2016 was $258,000.

Alamosa County Commissioner Michael Yohn added that although the new addition will cost more to operate, hopefully the money the county was spending to house inmates elsewhere could be used to operate the addition.

Yohn thanked the voters for approving the tax that funded the jail addition and justice center. “This is your money,” he said. “We appreciate your trust in us to spend your money wisely.”

He said earlier ballot questions to fund a jail addition alone had failed, but the combined jail/justice center measure was approved.

Agreeing with Sigmond that the drug issue must be addressed, Yohn said focus needs to be placed on programs that will provide education, treatment and services to keep people out of jail, because as the sheriff has said, the detention facility is not a treatment center, but it has had to deal with people suffering from addictions and other medical emergencies.

Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen said he recalled when Conejos County completed its new jail and Conejos County Commissioner Robert Bagwell said that was one of the happiest days of his life and at the same time one of the saddest days of his life — happy because the county could now provide housing for inmates — and sad because there was a need for that housing.

Allen said he would much rather celebrate closing the jail’s doors one day because the county did not need it anymore, “but that’s not the way it is.”

Caption: As Chief District Judge Pattie Swift, center, cuts the ribbon at the new Alamosa County Detention Center addition on Friday, holding the ribbon from left are Alamosa County Administrator Gigi Dennis, Alamosa County Commissioner Michael Yohn, (Swift), Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson, Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen and Alamosa County Commissioner Helen Sigmond./Courier photo by Ruth Heide