Doin’ the time: Memories of the Summit County Jail
With all the discussion recently about the remodel of the Summit County Jail and the cost-of-care proposal, a lot of old memories have returned.
Susan Donaldson in her great book, “Summit’s Courthouse,” covered some of the following but for those of you unfortunate enough not to have read it, I will go over some of the details.
There will be a test later.
Counties operate jails. The jail is normally located in the county seat. In Summit County, that is Breckenridge. But towns can operate their own jails if they think it is appropriate. Town judges can sentence offenders to jail, and if the town or city has a jail, that is where they go.
You can see the old Frisco Jail at the Frisco Historic Park. No, I did not work there. It was closed just before I went into law enforcement. (Just kidding.)
The jails in Summit County were located in various buildings on Main and Ridge streets in Breckenridge before the new (and only) courthouse was built in 1909.
The jail was in the basement right next to the housing for the sheriff and his wife. The sheriff was given free housing, probably to provide security for the jail. His wife was there to cook and clean. (Sorry for the stereotype.)
The jail was in one large room with a cage in the middle. The walls of the room were thick concrete and had a peephole so the sheriff or the deputies could check the room without going in.
The peephole is still there and you can look at it next time you are in the courthouse. The old jail doors are in storage at the Summit County Justice Center. They would make a neat display to show how things used to be in jails.
In 1973, the Board of County Commissioners decided to build an addition to the courthouse on the west side of the building. The addition is still there and you can tell where it begins and ends by the type of bricks that were used. The upper floor of the addition was the new jail and the lower floor was the county manager’s office.
I went to work in that jail in May of 1976. I had been a school administrator in Jefferson County and decided to quit my job and work full time in the mountains. At the time there were five people working in the jail. About five other people worked in the rest of the Sheriff’s Office.
I could write a book about that jail. Many interesting officers. Lots of interesting prisoners.
The jail supervisor’s office had been turned into Summit County Communications. The only public safety function that ever had full-time coverage in those days was the radio room. No ambulance personnel. No police officers. No sheriff’s deputies. Just a female dispatcher. The dispatcher answered the phone, operated the radio and ran the jail.
If someone was arrested and there was no jailer on duty, the dispatcher called the man who ran the Norge Laundry on French Street, who would get out of bed and go over to book the prisoner.
A lot of the time there was a trusty prisoner who was not locked down who could help run the jail. That prisoner would clean, do laundry and cook. Cooking was heating TV dinners and breakfasts. Lunch was two slices of bread and some bologna. Sometimes they would get peanut butter and jelly. Sometimes an apple.
There were times when the jail population would be so low, prisoners would be allowed to walk down to the Gold Pan to get a meal. I also remember a time when we tried having food catered to see if anything changed. Nothing changed.
We had one lawsuit over the food and as a result had Colorado State University come in to do a nutrition check. It turned out the TV dinners were more than adequate.
Prisoners worked very hard to get out of the place. Two prisoners worked very hard to remove all of the grout between a couple of cinder blocks in the wall only to be discovered by the dispatcher when she heard the “clunk” of the blocks dropping. They had replaced the grout with toothpaste as they worked their way out of their cell.
Another inmate bribed a trusty to give him the key to the steel screens on the window. He decided to make a run for it one February and dropped out of the window into the waiting arms of several officers. The trusty had revealed the plan and we were waiting with open arms on the ground.
One poor soul hanged himself after he called his wife to bond him out and she refused. He escaped in a body bag.
A young lady ran out the back door of the jail during the booking process, got into her car and led a parade of police cars back to her residence at Copper Mountain.
It looked like the cannonball express. She refused to unlock her doors at her destination and a Colorado State Patrolman had to open the door with his nightstick. Works every time.
I can only remember one successful escape. A prisoner crawled through the ceiling from the day room to the men’s bathroom on the main floor of the courthouse in the early 1970s. That was before I worked there, and I was told he never turned up. I always wondered if they would find his skeleton in the ceiling when they remodeled the jail to turn it into the County Clerk’s Office. They did not find him but maybe they did not look well enough. Don’t tell the employees in the clerk’s office, whatever you do. This is our secret.
The big change came in 1986 when we were sued because a prisoner in a wheelchair could not get up to the courtroom. That is when the decision was made to build the new jail and the new Justice Center.
It’s hard to believe that building is 17 years old now. It has been remodeled twice and now the county is planning to do some more renovations in the future.
By the way: It is not the “New Courthouse,” it is the “Justice Center” and has never been the “courthouse.” The building where I work is still the “courthouse” and not the “Old Courthouse.” I spend a lot of my time correcting reporters and staff on this point.
I may be the “Old Commissioner” but the building is not the “Old Courthouse.”
Old County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom pens his thoughts in this space very Thursday.
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