The funky clock in the jail office with the mismatched numbers reads 8:10, meaning that it is just about 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night. Three deputies rush toward the garage at the end of the hallway to greet a petite, inebriated woman who’s still wearing ski pants and ski boots. She begins to argue with them as they pull her from the police car and sit her in a chair to unstrap her boots. Then, as her ethanol-drenched mind grasps the situation, her protests turn to hysterical cries.
“I don’t deserve this,” she yells repeatedly as she’s wheeled in the chair past booking toward an isolation cell. “I just drank too much. I don’t deserve this.”
Despite the scene, the deputies carry tranquility in their demeanor, making small talk with her about her favorite college football team as they place her in a cell, lower the blinds on the window, and shut the door. Immediately, the woman starts pounding her fists and screaming.
“Please, please,” she screams. “I just want to go home.” The pounding continues. And then the stomping starts, creating a steady rhythm in the otherwise silent booking office.
“It’s a nice beat,” deputy Debbie Kendrick says. “I just don’t think I can dance to it.”
Kendrick does not paraphrase the classic American Bandstand line out of spite or animosity for the newest jail occupant. She says it simply to lighten up a gloomy mood that has taken over the office.
“Sometimes when you see something sad on a constant basis, the only thing left to do is laugh about it,” she says.
The new inmate’s hysterics continue for hours. The woman throws her soft mattress across the room, rolls around on the floor, twirls from wall to wall, and even lies down and achieves leg lifts against the door. The deputies have given her cell phone back and offered her food and water in an attempt to calm her down. But she is inconsolable. The woman’s boundless amounts of energy and the faint, white doughnut around one of her nostrils leads them to believe that she has indulged in more than alcohol.
“There is something in there that’s keeping her going,” deputy Walt Geister says.
Despite the hours of pounding on the door, conducting acrobatics throughout the cell, and howling at the top of her lungs, Geister says she is one of the more polite overnight guests they’ve had.
“You see people at their worst in here,” Geister says. “Some people are threatening to kill you and your family if you don’t let them out.”
“People yell at you. People spit at you. One guy bit his lip repeatedly until he was bleeding and spit his blood at us,” she says.
For the staff of the Pitkin County Jail, stories like these are practically ordinary. The red brick building located directly behind the courthouse on Main Street, with 26 beds, books roughly 500 people a year. Out of that population, 50 percent bond out in the first 24 hours and 25 percent in three days. Bird estimates that 80 percent of inmates are booked because of substance abuse.
“Most people in here break the law because of their substance-abuse issue,” Bird said. “It’s a sad situation because it’s controllable.”
Often given the label of a country club or a five-star hotel, Pitkin County Jail has a national reputation for plushness. Rumors on the outside range from realistic to farfetched: The inmates get brought food from some of the best restaurants in Aspen; they can leave during the day and roam the streets if they wish; this is a jail made for the rich and famous.
It’s true that this jail does not play into the typical perception of incarceration. Sunlight shines through the numerous windows. A beam that runs through the main room is painted pink for a soothing affect. Meals are not from five-star restaurants, but they do come from the Aspen Valley Hospital so they are balanced and nutritious. In between meals, a kitchenette is stocked with boxed cereal, ramen, drawers of butter, and shelves of milk that can be enjoyed anytime of day. Men and women co-mingle in the main area, known as the multipurpose room. Each inmate also has a day room that they share with one to three others and each day room has a television they’re allowed to watch any time during the day, as well as a shower they can use as often as they please. And, inmates can sleep at all hours of the day in their private cell if they so wish.
It’s no wonder Pitkin County Jail is known, on a national level, as luxurious. But, that normalization, those privileges, lie at the heart of the jail’s success.
“When put into an abnormal environment we are going to act abnormally,” Bird said. “We try to approximate a normal environment so inmates are more likely to act normal.”
This approach is called Direct Supervision. When the jail opened in 1984, this was a relatively new concept for the jail system in the United States as it differed drastically from the classic models. Direct Supervision means deputies are often in the jail so they are accessible to inmates. They also create relationships with them and try to see where and how they need help.
“We want to give them a leg up and do what we can to help them succeed,” Kendrick said.
The theory behind this is that connecting inmates with society and helping them in any possible way while they’re in captivity will lead them to do a better job when they’re released and out in the real world, according to Kendrick.
“Honestly, there’s nothing hard about this jail,” said a young inmate, who chooses to remain anonymous, as he prepares ramen in the kitchen. “This is how all jails should be.”
The jail and the community provide numerous programs for the inmates to participate in such as yoga, arts and crafts, Bible study, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Nonprofits bring in projects they need assistance with, such as envelope stuffing or potting plants. The deputies also frequent the Pitkin County Library to rent books for the inmates, giving them ways to stimulate their minds and bodies and distract them from the stress and monotony of jail time.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had so many people supporting me,” said a female inmate, who chooses to remain anonymous.
As proud of the jail staff is of their operation, Bird admits that there are still some issues with it. For example, the building was designed in a way that makes it difficult for women to have the same privileges as men. Women have to sit at certain tables in the multi-purpose room so the guards can see them from the booking office. To enter or leave the multi-purpose room they must ask permission, unlike the men who can roam in and out as they please. This is for their safety so the guards can know their location at all times. And the women have only one day room and two private cells designated to them. If more are booked, they must sleep in a bunk bed in the day room while all men have their own rooms.
“Guys definitely get a lot more perks in here,” the female inmate said.
Because of its size, the Pitkin County Jail has a fair amount of co-mingling among inmates. Although there are 26 beds, the average daily population is 16. Currently, there are 17 inmates that range in age from 18 to 66. They’ve committed, or been charged with, an eclectic mix of crimes from violation of bail and failure to comply, to domestic violence and conspiracy to commit murder. Because of the small sample and the typical short stays, it is hard to detect any patterns or consistencies in crime or age. However, the deputies do often find a correlation between the Aspen nightlife scene and high crime rate.
“If the bars are full, we are full,” Kendrick said.
On weekends like X Games or holidays such as Halloween and New Year’s, the jail often doubles up on staff at night to handle the number of people being brought in by the police. Typically, these people are of the younger generation.
“They’re almost always in their 20s or early 30s,” Geister said. “I’ve done so many night shifts that I’m comfortable with it now.”
These intoxicated night-goers haven’t always committed a crime. Sometimes, they’re simply put in jail for their own protection. Even if they spend the entire night pounding on the door and yelling at the deputies, they are typically an entirely different person by dawn.
Saturday morning brings a grateful change in the woman placed in the isolation cell the night before. The volatile girl from last night has been replaced with a tired, yet calm and rational woman.
The deputies give her cereal for breakfast and collect her fingerprints and information now that she is lucid enough to comply. After everything checks out, she is served a court summons for the crime she committed the night before and is given bus fare to get home.
Before she leaves, Kendrick talks with her to offer information on substance abuse and mental illness.
“We want to make sure she knows there are resources out there for her,” Kendrick says.
However, Kendrick admits that most people do not follow through with therapy. And once they are out of the jail it is out of the deputy’s authority to make them do so.
“Their impression is that things are not going to get better,” she says.
All that is in the deputy’s power is to make sure they are safe when they are in the building. And that is exactly what Kendrick and the rest of the Pitkin County Jail staff do.
“This is the person she is, the one we see this morning,” Kendrick says of the newly sober inmate. “The person she was last night is the one we have to protect.”
Famous Inmates in the Jails in Aspen*
• Theodore Robert “Ted” Bundy, charged with murder
• Dewey Sukarno, former First Lady of Indonesia, pleaded to third degree assault
• Quintin Wortham, aka “The Capitol Hill Rapist,”charged with rape
• Claudine Longet, convicted of manslaughter of boyfriend/Olympic ski racer Spider Sabich
• Charlie Sheen, charged with menacing with a deadly weapon (dismissed), 3rd degree assault (guilty), criminal mischief (dismissed) and domestic violence (guilty)
• Brooke Mueller (Charlie Sheen’s ex-wife), charged with 3rd degree assault (dismissed), and possession of a controlled substance (deferred)
* Not all were in the Pitkin County Jail; some were housed in the previous jail in the court house
A Brief History of the Aspen Jails of Aspen
1891: The dedication of the first official jail in Aspen. It was located in the basement of the Court House on Main Street (iron door, right). Before this time, people that were arrested were put in a small jail located on Hyman Avenue between Galena and Hunter streets.
1982: Ground breaks on construction for the new jail (above).
1983: A staff member named Bruce Benjamin comes up to Aspen from the Boulder County Jail to help implement Direct Supervision. Benjamin still works with the sheriff’s office in Pitkin County today as a juvenile investigator.
1984: Dedication of Pitkin County Jail. Eight inmates move from the basement of City Hall to the new building. At this time, juveniles were also prohibited from being housed in county jails.
1991: Don Bird becomes jail administrator.
1992: Pitkin County Jail becomes one of the first jails in Colorado to instate a non-smoking rule.