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Colorado lawmakers approve recommendation for basic jail standards

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Colorado lawmakers approve recommendation for basic jail standards

Nov 28, 2023 | 6:15 pm ET
By Sara Wilson
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Colorado lawmakers approve recommendation for basic jail standards
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The outside of a building that is a part of the Denver Sheriff Department's County Jail Division, taken on Feb. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

A group of Colorado lawmakers on Tuesday approved a baseline set of standards for how jails in the state should house, feed, restrain, treat and care for the people within their facilities, concluding a 17-month-long process to develop guidelines for the first time in the state’s history.

The lengthy report from the Colorado Jail Standards Commission details standards in 16 areas of a jail’s operations, including housing, communication, visitation, health care, use of force and restraints. The Legislative Oversight Committee Concerning Colorado Jail Standards signed off on the report and will use it as a basis for legislation to be introduced next year.

“I am very confident saying that we did our best to represent all perspectives and to balance an approach of reforming and innovating and raising standards while also meeting counties and jails where they’re at, trying to be mindful that you can’t build something with nothing,” commission Chair Meghan Baker told committee members.

The commission and committee were created through 2022 legislation. The commission includes county commissioners, sheriffs, police officers, a district attorney, representatives from organizations that advocate for minorities and people with lived experience being incarcerated, among others.

The standards touch nearly every aspect of how an incarcerated person experiences jail. They include, for example, having access to medical professionals as early into their incarceration as possible, and receiving health care throughout incarceration that is medically necessary, culturally sensitive, and offered through a nonjudgmental, gender-affirming approach.

The standards also state that jail staff should be trained annually on how to recognize and respond to suicidality, and should make meaningful observations of suicidal individuals with no more than 15 minutes between checks.

“Incarceration heightens risk of suicide. Given that the majority of deaths by suicide occur in persons with no known mental health condition, the need for primary prevention cannot be over-emphasized,” the report reads.

This is meant to be a living document. What we say today might not be the best practice in five years.

– Meghan Baker, chair of the Colorado Jail Standards Commission

The commission also set a standard for jails to serve “nutritionally adequate” food with an appropriate amount of calories. That includes three meals per day, two of which are hot. Food cannot be withheld or changed as punishment.

Another standard states that all forms of restraint should be used only when necessary and “in the least restrictive manner and for the shortest duration necessary to accomplish the given goal,” and that staff should be trained to recognize signs of a medical emergency.

As of 2019, there were 61 jails in Colorado that house people who have been arrested and are awaiting resolution of their charges, as well as people who have been convicted and sentenced to serve up to two years of incarceration.

Legislation from the committee, to be introduced when the Legislature reconvenes in January, would create a jail standards advisory committee to assess compliance with the adopted standards and prepare an annual report for lawmakers. The advisory committee would be made up of two sheriffs, two county commissioners, the state public defender, a health professional with experience working in jails and a person representing a statewide organization that advocates on behalf of incarcerated people.

That bill would also require the attorney general’s office to work in conjunction with the peer advisory committee to review standards compliance. If their findings are different than the advisory committee’s, they can file their own addendum to the annual report.

The attorney general’s office would also be able to conduct a special assessment by request from the governor, the oversight committee or a sheriff.

“This is important for the attorney general right now because they have no knowledge of jails. They have no experts. So it will build up their expertise and have someone in the attorney general’s office to immerse themselves in the standards,” Jack Johnson, the Public Policy Liaison for Disability Law Colorado, told lawmakers during an Oct. 13 meeting.

The bill will start in the House and be sponsored by Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat, and Rep. Lorena Garcia, an Adams County Democrat. In the Senate it will be sponsored by Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, and Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat.

The adoption of the standards on Tuesday mark the first time there has been a uniform set of guidelines for all of Colorado’s jails. Still, the legislative committee can revise specific standards in the future.

“This is meant to be a living document. What we say today might not be the best practice in five years,” Baker said. “I am confident that it is not perfect, but I am confident that it is the best compilation of all of the knowledge that we have here in Colorado and what we’ve been able to glean from other states.”