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Auditor found issues in Denver jails that could compromise safety

Posted at 11:38 AM, Mar 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-23 12:19:58-04

DENVER — A new Denver audit report found that the Denver Sheriff Department lacks a comprehensive approach to identifying risks, ensuring the safety of deputies and inmates, and responding to incidents related to assault, sexual assault, or uses of force.

The audit looked into how the sheriff department makes sure the city jails are safe for the public, staff and inmates, after previous concerns were unresolved. It found a fragmented approach to risk management in the jails. It also found practices that don’t align with national leading standards.

“The sheriff department needs to take action to better protect the public, its staff, and the inmates,” said Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien. “This starts with having a comprehensive, clear, and consistent plan to respond to incidents and prevent them from happening.”

While some risks were beyond the control of the department, better risk management practices could help address other safety concerns in the stressed jail system, O’Brien said.

The auditor also recommended the sheriff department aligns its practices with National Institute of Corrections’ standards. Currently, the department follows the American Correctional Association’s standards. The audit does not require the department to follow a specific set of standards, but did ask it to reevaluate its risk management in the report.

Part of that includes handcuffing high-risk inmates behind their back, something the sheriff department does not do. They opt to handcuff somebody in the front, which had led to multiple incidents, including assaults on deputies, according to the audit.

“The real point here is that the current restraint practices are inconsistent and not working, as witnessed by my own audit team,” O’Brien said. “The Sheriff Department says what it does now is adequate, but the evidence in this audit report suggests otherwise.”

The auditor also expressed concerns over the jail system’s intake and classification processes. There were several instances where the current processes deviated from both national leading practices and the department’s own policies, according to the audit.

For example, the department wasn’t taking pictures of inmates' tattoos, scars and other marks that could indicate gang affiliations. The department claimed that self-reporting and other physical characteristics were enough to confirm a gang membership, according to the audit.

Classification interviews at the department changed so they’d only take place during intake, instead of during both intake and before classification, the latter of which would help determine housing. Classification staff expressed concern about this change, according to the audit.

“Classification errors can lead to serious incidents, including assaults on staff and inmates, because higher-risk inmates could be incorrectly housed among lower-risk inmates who have reduced security privileges,” O’Brien said. “Improper classification and housing shortages can also lead to violence, tension, and the availability of contraband within the jails.”

The audit also called for the department to use its Data Science Unit not just for cleaning up data, but rather as a resource for more meaningful analysis.

You can read the full audit by clicking here.

In response to the audit, the Denver Sheriff Department said it agrees with the focus areas the City Auditor chose to review, "however, we have concerns with the correlations made to prison standards. It’s important to note that jails are managed very differently than prisons."

A spokesperson for the department argued that the Downtown Detention Center and the County Jail, which the Denver Sheriff Department runs, are very different than the operations of a prison.

“We value transparency and accountability and welcome review of our service delivery,” Sheriff Patrick Firman said in a news release. “To ensure continuous improvement and sustainable change, we have also developed a cohesive, comprehensive data management practice that supports safety and contributes to our decision-making process on a daily basis.”