Reforming Denver jail won’t be easy or cheap, says national expert

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10min 13sec
Photo: Denver jail inmates
Inmates in the custody of a Denver deputy.

The millions of dollars paid to settle high profile inmate cases haven't slowed criticisms about the the way Denver is running its jail system -- and its efforts to implement reform.

The latest fault finding comes from Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher. His office issued an audit on the jail earlier this month, saying, "The problems fester, yet recommendations that could have addressed some of those problems are being put on hold or worse, ignored."

Jeff Schwartz, the president of LETRA, a California-based nonprofit that helps turn around troubled jails, gave Colorado Matters' Elaine Grant his thoughts on the audit and the city's reform efforts. Schwartz had applied as part of a group to consult on reforms, but was not selected. Below are highlights from the conversation.

On the dependence on overtime for deputies in the jail
"Jail inmates are confronted with deputies that have been working so long that even good deputies may be short of temper, irritable, and quick to overreact. That also means that those deputies are in more danger than they should be... At the same time the city puts itself at risk of more expensive lawsuits because of unnecessary incidents and just the cost of the overtime becomes overwhelming."

Schwartz on high turnover among Denver's managers of safety
"If there's a vacuum of leadership, staff tend to look at it as, 'Well, do whatever you want. If you don't like what's going on now, it's like the weather. If you wait a few minutes, it will probably change.' So it works against accountability and it works against setting new direction.'"

On whether it is an impossible task to turn the jail around
"The task in Denver is not impossible, but it's very difficult and it's possible to fail. Good people can work on it and not get where they need to go. It is a difficult situation. It will not be quick. It won't be easy and it won't be cheap."