Platts: Young and incarcarated, a first-hand experience in the Pitkin County Jail
I was behind the booking desk at the Pitkin County Jail when the intoxicated woman got escorted into the isolation cell on a Friday night. I was back there to see her transformation on Saturday morning as she strapped on her ski boots and headed toward the bus, court summons and counseling pamphlets in hand (see Aspen Times Weekly Cover Story, main carousel).
I heard her screams for hours the night before. Some of them flirted with the idea of suicide so a therapist from Mind Springs Health was called in to see her and clear her for release in the morning. This valley is thick with suicide attempts — and unfortunate successes — so the jail takes extra precaution when someone delivers a threat, small or large, about taking their own life.
For hours, the deputies and I heard snippets from the woman’s life. Listening to her protests helped me realize that the real enemy wasn’t herself or the inmates that were trying to sleep over her noise. The enemy was the substance that brought her here and her dependence on it.
When I came to this realization, the differences between her and me lessened. The differences between her and many people I know lessened. Not much separated me from her or the inmates decked out in orange except a bad experience, a wrong turn, a faulty decision that worsened over time. We all make mistakes, but when someone doesn’t have the awareness or the opportunity to seek help for those mistakes, they can turn into a pattern that ends up placing them in the system.
I went into the jail because I wanted to see a different world — a place in our community that, for many, is shadowed in mystery. But when I walked through the thick, leaded door and sat down for lunch with two female inmates, I realized that this place was not another world, it was simply an extension of our community. An extension that’s often ignored by the general population.
I found normal people in the jail. Not just the individuals that post an intoxicated fit until morning, but the inmates who live their day-to-day life in the Pitkin County Jail. Most of them have not been sentenced yet. They’re awaiting their court date, according to the premise that a person is innocent until proven guilty. But, for the time being, the jail is their home.
They have their own room, or “cell,” in which many of them put up photos, notes, or drawings to help personalize their environment. Most have a collection of books on their shelf that they read avidly to help stimulate their mind and distract them from the anxiety of their situation. They watch TV in their day room. They make puzzles and cook ramen in the multipurpose room. They do time, until they are told they don’t have to anymore.
Jail administrator Don Bird told me during an interview that he has a great staff that he credits with the jail’s success. When making a new hire, he looks for a person who can relate well to others and connect with people on a personal level. He searches for individuals with “a strong element of compassion paired with some street-wise.” He also chooses people that can think for themselves and make decisions based on more than a rule book.
After spending several shifts in jail with his staff (there are 14 of them, including Bird), I believe he has succeeded in his search. His staff doesn’t seem mean or power-hungry. They appear to really care.
My beat in the Aspen Times Weekly is millennials. I cover the younger generation in Aspen. So, naturally, I was eager to understand jail time and the Pitkin County Jail from a young person’s lens. The sad and predictable truth is that, like most things in Aspen, jail time centers around booze. Ending up in jail due to drinking too much isn’t an elusive scenario for anyone; in fact, it’s quite feasible.
I dressed in a jail uniform in a photo shoot for this article. I even got fully shackled to try to understand what it felt like to be an inmate. And, I must admit, despite the seemingly plush accommodations and the pleasant staff, I have no interest in ever being in that situation legitimately.
No matter how good the food is.
Barbara Platts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @barbaraplatts.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.