DENVER – Denver’s jails could improve safety and reduce the risk of violence by improving the classification and intake system for new inmates. While Denver’s Sheriff Department has plans to improve its jail management system, an assessment commissioned by Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien found there are still areas of concern when it comes to the inmate intake and classification process.
Auditor O’Brien ordered an assessment of Denver jail operations by private firm BKD, LLP, Enterprise Risk Services to review the implementation of recommendations from a previous assessment by consulting firm Hillard Heintze in 2015. BKD’s review looked at 27 recommendations about the intake and classification process and jail safety out of 277 total recommendations. According to the assessment, two important purposes of the classification process include: 1) making suitable housing decisions and 2) providing important information about the offenders to the deputies who are overseeing the inmates on a daily basis.
“Keeping inmates and staff safe is a top priority,” Auditor O’Brien said. “There would be fewer incidents and less need to use force if inmates were more efficiently moved out of general population areas into appropriate housing assignments.”
The assessment found room for improvement in areas such as reducing the amount of time offenders are waiting in open holding areas or in temporary housing. According to the assessment, before the interview to decide where an inmate should be housed, offenders are separated into men and women and left in general holdings areas known as “the pit” on the first floor of the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center on W. Colfax Ave. in Denver. In these areas, there is little physical protection for the offenders or staff if an offender’s behavior is erratic. BKD found this information through interviews with people involved in the process. The current jail management system does not retain the data needed to verify this information, however the assessment team hopes a new system in the future will allow for more comprehensive data retention.
Intake related use-of-force incidents within the Denver Sheriff’s Department remained consistent from 2014 to 2016, with an average of 260 incidents per year. By decreasing the amount of time offenders spend waiting for cell housing decisions, safety risks could be decreased.
The assessment notes one way to decrease temporary holding time is to improve the classification process. The classification process involves interviewing incoming inmates and assigning them a security level. After that, the classification deputy uses information collected about an inmate from the interview, a recommendation from a computer and professional judgment to decide where and with which other inmates each offender should be housed. This is when an offender is assigned to either the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center or Denver County Jail.
As seen in the table below, the deputy responsible for assigning an inmate a security level classification uses recommendations calculated by a computer algorithm and then can use professional judgment to override for an approved result. While overrides of the computer’s recommendation are rare, they seem to happen most often when a deputy assigns the lowest level classification to offenders instead of the recommended second lowest level. Interviews during the assessment indicate the overrides often occur due to a shortage of appropriate cell space for the assigned classification level.
This is worth noting because there is no formal training for classification deputies to make these designations. Currently, classification knowledge is gained from years of experience and modeling a current classification deputy until a new deputy is comfortable. BKD recommends a new, standardized training in conjunction with the new jail management system. One specific recommendation calls for deputy training on in-depth interviews on topics such as mental health treatment, gang affiliation and prior arrests. BKD did not find evidence of this additional training, however the agency says the recommendation was implemented in October 2017, after the audit work was completed.
“The Denver jail needs to improve its process of moving offenders into their long-term cells to help protect staff and reassure the public that deputies are fully trained to handle inmates safely and with fairness,” Auditor O’Brien said.
The 2015 assessment recommended the department implement training for interviewers and take additional information such as gang association into account when making classification decisions. Since then, the department has added a question about gang affiliation into the interview process to ensure gang members are not housed together.
Another concern involves the lack of historical documentation in the old jail management system. For example, when making a classification, a deputy can look up an offender’s history of assault and note “yes” or “no” in the system. This information is used to inform other deputies who work with the offender daily. However, no details of the information used to assign a certain classification are recorded and passed on for future deputy knowledge and use.
Also, the system overwrites old information with new information, making the tracking and analysis of historical records inefficient or impossible. The department plans to implement a new jail management system, which officials expect will address these record-keeping concerns.
“Strong training and analytics can help the jails identify trends and patterns,” Auditor O’Brien said. “Through this kind of analysis, the jails could work to improve their overall performance and safety.”
In 2017, the Sheriff’s Department has made progress to implement a majority of the 27 recommendations. Seven of the recommendations are completed. BKD found eight of the recommendations were mostly completed and nine were partially completed. Three of the recommendations were not completed. Overall, the assessment finds more could be done to improve the efficiency and transparency of the intake and classification process. More training and review could help improve safety, efficiency and transparency.
“Slow inmate processing at Denver jails leaves inmates, sheriff’s deputies vulnerable, city auditor finds”- Colorado Politics – 1/22/18
“Denver auditor finds DSD has made significant changes, but inmate and deputy safety still an issue” – Denver 7 – 1/18/17
“Denver auditor says sheriff could do more to reduce violence in downtown jail” – Denver Post – 1/22/18