Pitkin County’s jail director now free as a bird after 27 years
Don Bird is all smiles these days.
“My immediate plans are to go skiing and in the summer I’m gonna ride my bike,” Bird said last week.
Up until a week ago, however, Bird’s life was not nearly so free and relaxed. That’s because he’s spent the better part of the past three decades as director of the Pitkin County Jail, which consumed him.
“This job has been a weight on my shoulders for 27 years,” Bird said. “It didn’t matter where I was, … it was a weight I’d put on every morning.”
By the beginning of this year, it was clear that weight had taken a toll and Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, Bird’s boss, asked him to take a leave of absence and forget the jail and his job for six weeks.
“I just totally disconnected,” Bird said. “I didn’t do my regular routine. It was so liberating.”
By the end of his six-week leave, Bird said he realized he didn’t want to come back.
“It became almost immediately evident (the jail staff) were doing just fine without me,” he said. “So I decided they could keep doing just fine without me.”
Bird retired last week after a total of 34 years at the jail as a detention officer and jail director. Asked if he would miss his old job, Bird didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I will miss the staff.”
Still, he’s proud of the legacy he left behind as one of the most progressive jail directors in Colorado.
“I’ve been in charge of hundreds of people (over the years),” Bird said. “I run into former inmates all the time (and) I never have to cross the street to avoid (them).
“(They say), ‘I just want to thank you for how you treated me.’ It’s as easy to do that as it is to be a hard ass. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
That philosophy of treating inmates as humans and not “dirtbags” is central to Bird’s legacy, DiSalvo said.
“I think Don is the best thing that ever happened to the Pitkin County Jail,” the sheriff said. “I couldn’t ask for a more caring, compassionate jail director.”
Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely agreed.
“It says much about Don that over his desk at the jail hung a Thomas W. Benton print with the quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,’” Fernandez-Ely wrote in an email to The Aspen Times. “Don often said of the inmates in the jail, ‘They are members of our community and they will return to our community. While they are in this jail, they should be treated as members of our community.’”
But beyond requiring respect toward inmates, Bird also established innovative and progressive programs and policies now considered standard best practices in jails and prisons across the country, DiSalvo and Fernandez-Ely said.
“There’s almost too much to mention,” DiSalvo said.
One of the first things he did after former Sheriff Bob Braudis named him jail director in 1991 was to make the facility smoke-free, he said. Before that, jail officials would hand out tobacco for inmates to roll their own cigarettes, he said.
But when a jail deputy suggested banning smoking because of health risks, Bird readily agreed. He told the inmates they had two weeks to curb their addiction, then banned smoking in the jail for good.
“We were one of the first jails in the state to go no-smoking,” Bird said.
DiSalvo and Fernandez-Ely cited Bird’s early support of the federal government’s Prison Rape Elimination Act as another example of his forward-thinking policies. Bird established a method by which inmates could report harassment from other inmates or jail deputies, DiSalvo said.
“I think that was a huge step for the state in general and I was proud we were part of it,” he said. “Now all jails in Colorado have to be PREA compliant.”
Bird pioneered bringing in outside volunteers to provide inmates with access to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as providing art classes, Bible study groups and yoga classes, Fernandez-Ely said. He also applied for and received a grant three years ago that provides inmates with substance-abuse and mental-health counseling, she said.
In addition, Bird “set out to build bridges” with various community systems like the hospital, mental health services and the judicial branch that brought the independent entities together, Fernandez-Ely said. Bird also led bail bond reform efforts so people didn’t sit in jail just because they couldn’t afford a bond, she said.
“We’re probably the only part of the system that sees (inmates) as real people,” Bird said. “We don’t call people ‘dirtbags’ and other names. We treat people respectfully, and I don’t think that occurs in a lot of jails.”
Bird’s life in Aspen began Dec. 1, 1970.
“I still celebrate it every year,” he said.
He graduated with a history degree from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in June 1970 and drove a truck for the summer on the New Jersey shore, he said.
“(After that), me and another guy bought a VW van with an 8-track stereo and a big brick of pot and off we go to California,” Bird said.
But after a few months in the San Francisco area, he said he couldn’t find a job. A friend in Denver, however, said jobs were plentiful in that city, so he headed back east, Bird said.
On the way, he and a friend decided to stop in Aspen to visit another friend from Bucknell who was living here. They arrived in town, found a bar and all of a sudden stumbled into three other friends from Bucknell who offered Bird a place to stay.
“So I (stayed),” he said, “and I never left.”
Not long after, Bird said he remembers sitting on Red Mountain and looking out over Aspen at night “and thinking I could stay here for a long time.”
“I just felt right at home,” he said. “It was the perfect place for me. I wasn’t a city guy. At the time it was a smaller version of Haight-Ashbury. Hunter Thompson had just run for sheriff.
“It was just in full bloom and I said, ‘I’m home.’”
Bird worked in bars and restaurants for the next 14 years before answering an ad for a jail deputy that required a college degree. He said he never envisioned being in law enforcement and, in fact, saw himself more on the other side of that equation.
“I always thought those were guys who ruined people’s day,” Bird said.
But with the kinder, gentler vision of law enforcement promoted by then-Sheriff Dick Kienast and furthered by Braudis and DiSalvo, Bird said he immediately felt right at home.
Now, as he approaches his 70th birthday next month, Bird said he has no plans to leave his adopted hometown of 47 years.
“I’m gonna pay off my mortgage,” he said.
DiSalvo said he thinks retirement will be good for Bird and expects him to embrace his new life of leisure at first. But he doesn’t think it will be long before Bird finds himself at loose ends.
“I can see Don volunteering (eventually),” DiSalvo said. “He loves giving back to this community.
“I think the people of Pitkin County should say ‘Thank you’ to Don whenever they see him. It’s going to be hard to replace him.”
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