Log In

Reset Password

An inside peek into the Montezuma County jail

Jerry McBride/Durango HeraldMontezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin opens the door to the Montezuma County Detention Center on Dec. 31 in Cortez.
Detention center has lots of moving parts; COVID impacts operations

Behind the fortified walls of the Montezuma County Detention Center in Cortez exists a tight-knit community of jailers, inmates, cooks, nurses, counselors, technicians, pastors, administrators, pretrial specialists, lawyers and bondsmen.

Often overlooked by the law-abiding public, jails are key part of society, and they demand a strict and caring effort by staff to run successfully, said Lt. Vici Pierce.

An inside look into the jail Dec. 21 by The Journal and a Durango Herald photographer revealed the variety of detention careers and the complex process of incarceration, including adjustments made in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

Pierce has overseen operations of the 104-bed detention center since it was built in 2001, and works alongside Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin and a staff of 38.

Lt. Vici Pierce of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office describes how a deputy records a checkup of an at-risk inmate in a holding cell at the Montezuma County Detention Center in Cortez. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Together, they coordinate an inmate population that sometimes exceeds capacity.

“Today, we have 67 inmates. Eleven were released earlier, and five came in this morning,” Pierce said.

Arrangements were being made for 15 inmates who have court appointments to appear in front of three local judges and one from Farmington.

Body scanner adds safety

During booking, inmates enter with an officer through a sally port, go through a full-body scanner and are fingerprinted electronically – no more ink.

“The scanner has been a blessing,” Pierce said, and “prevents contraband from sneaking into the jail.”

Jail population fluctuates

Incarcerations at the Montezuma County jail increased from 2017 to 2019, then dropped off in 2020 and 2021 for pandemic reasons that limited admittance.

According to jail reports:

In 2020, 2,243 prisoners served a combined total of 28,815 days.

In 2019, 3,992 prisoners served a combined total of 36,430 days.

In 2018, 2,916 prisoners served a combined total of 33,854 days.

In 2017, 2,224 prisoners served a combined total of 33,043 days.

As of November 2021, 2,100 prisoners had served 25,311 days.

The previous system of pat-downs and wands would miss items well hidden on a person, Nowlin said.

Now, contraband such as cellphones, weapons, lighters and drugs are easily detected by the scanner.

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin describes how the jail’s full-body scanner keep contraband out of the Montezuma County Detention Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
COVID-19 precautions stepped up

Incoming inmates are held in seven holding cells for 24 to 48 hours for a medical and mental evaluation, including COVID testing.

New inmates receive rapid COVID tests. Before they move into the general population, they must test negative, Pierce said. Masks are required, and frequent sanitation of the facility is the norm.

An inmate who tests positive is held in isolation in a holding cell and closely monitored.

Each incoming inmate is evaluated by the jail’s registered nurse, Virginia Hernandez, for medical needs including medications and COVID symptoms. Inmates with serious medical problems are taken to Southwest Memorial Hospital.

Registered nurse Virginia Hernandez takes out a rapid COVID-19 test at the Montezuma County Detention Center.

Axis Health System mental health counselors and nurse practitioners also provide services. Inmates are taken to medical appointments, are given prescribed medications and are offered the COVID vaccine.

They can book appointments and communicate with Hernandez about medical issues in person, through notes and computer.

“I work with inmates from ages 18 to 80,” she said. “I like the case management challenge of figuring out how to best help a person, get them what they need so they don’t end up back in jail.”

She sees a lot of mental health issues and drug and alcohol addiction. Finding rural rehabilitation services can be challenging. Inmates can receive free mental health and alcohol counseling.

An outbreak at the jail infected 28 inmates and seven staff in October. It led to a sheriff’s order that limited new inmates to protect staff and inmates. When the outbreak ended, Pierce said, the sheriff’s order limiting inmate admittance was rescinded.

The pandemic and outbreak was challenging because the jail lacked enough holding cells for testing and isolation, Pierce said. Less staff meant 12-hour shifts for the other employees.

“It was intense. We are free of it now,” Pierce said. “Our precautions avoided an outbreak for a year-and-a-half, then we were hit and got overwhelmed. With rapid testing available, we can catch it at booking more effectively and prevent it from getting into the general population.”

Booking is first step

The booking department has periods of controlled chaos as new inmates come in for processing and others are released.

“It can get busy fast. You need critical-thinking skills and work as a team,” said deputy Zach Summers.

He said staff get to know the inmates, and people skills are important in the job.

“It is best to get a good rapport with them. That way, if someone gets upset, you know how to talk with them,” Summers said. “In our work with the inmates, we practice being fair, firm and consistent.”

Montezuma County Sheriff Office deputies N. Dan, left, and Zack Summers work in the booking area at the Montezuma County Detention Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He’s had the job for two years, and wanted a career in law enforcement like his family members.

“It’s a great place to start,” Summers said.

Detention areas segregated by risk

Cell pods are divided into areas with high-risk inmates arrested and sentenced for more serious crimes, and areas with lower risk-inmates facing minor crimes.

High-risk inmates are more segregated. Low-risk inmates live dormitory-style and sleep in bunk beds.

Some inmates participate in jobs at the jail to reduce their sentence. Others are on court-approved work-release programs where they are allowed to go to their jobs during the day and return to the jail at night or on the weekends to serve out their sentence.

The recreation room has no equipment. Inmates are allowed to play handball, run laps or do simple exercises such as pushups and situps.

‘We used to have a basketball hoop, but the games would get too intense and caused injuries, so we had to remove it after the first year,” Pierce said.

All areas are regularly patrolled by detention deputies.

Education available

There are voluntary education options for inmates. The jail is a designated GED testing site, and two qualified teachers are available to help.

Nowlin said teachers meet with inmates on a weekly basis, and provide instruction on general education. Inmates are given assignments to complete. Basic life skills such as personal finance, career research, and how to create a resume are also taught.

“It helps and is worthwhile, the inmates who choose to take part appreciate it,” Nowlin said.

The jail education program is funded by a grant from the Colorado Justice Assistance Program.

The control room at the Montezuma County Detention Center on Tuesday in Cortez.
The jail’s nerve center

The control room is buzzing with activity, partly because of a shift change.

Technicians monitor 67 cameras throughout the facility and can zoom in if needed. The controller opens and locks doors as required and is in constant communication with deputies.

“Control room staff must be very observant. They learn the signs when trouble may happen and call for backup,” Pierce said.

On Dec. 21, Shannon Fouts, 23, who was hired as a detention officer six weeks ago, was learning the controls.

“It’s one of the best jobs I’ve had. It’s very different,” Fouts said. “I was a stay-at-home mom and needed to go back to work. A friend recommended it to me.”

She said important skills are confidence, appropriate communication with inmates and firm behavior so inmates “know you are in charge.”

She also underwent training to learn the rules, personal defense, how to deescalate an intense situation and when to use a weapon.

Detention officers also are tased and pepper-sprayed so they understand the experience, she said.

“You have to have a thick skin for this job and have public service in your heart,” Fouts said.

Chow time, three times a day

In the spacious kitchen, three full-time cooks and inmates prepare three meals per day for each inmate. The kitchen produces more than 100,000 meals per year. Food orders are $5,000 to $6,000 per month.

Cook Darla French has worked there 20 years.

“I like cooking and meeting the different people. It is not the best of circumstances, but they are still good people,” she said.

Darla French, a cook at the Montezuma County Detention Center, talks about the new mixers in the kitchen.
An inmate at the Montezuma County Detention Center who works in the kitchen.

Traditional meals are served on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Favorite meals are the pizza, sloppy Joes, mac and cheese, and corn dogs.

Inmate Stephen Beck enjoys working shifts in the kitchen because it “makes the day go by faster.”

For every three days that he works in the kitchen, he gets one day off his sentence. Upon release, he plans to use his cooking skills to open a community kitchen in the Northwest.

Church services are optional

The Montezuma Detention Center offers church services every Saturday.

Services are held in the jail pods and rotate between jail Chaplain Shelby Smith, five local pastors and five assistants, all volunteers.

The services focus on sermons, prayers and Bible stories that offer positive guidance, Smith said. Two to 10 inmates typically attend the 15- to 20-minute services.

Jail Chaplain Shelby Smith and five local pastors offer church services for inmates at the Montezuma County Detention Center. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

At the inmate’s request, Shelby and pastors also meet with inmates one on one.

“We talk about what is happening in their life, discuss if there is a better way,” Smith said.

If requested, inmates are provided a Bible. Support is offered for other religions as well. For example, Koran and Buddhist readings have been provided for inmates.

Church services might also include songs, such as “Joy to the World,” with lyrics provided to inmates, Smith said.

“The ladies sing their hearts out; the guys, not so much,” Smith said.

More volunteer jail pastors and assistants are welcomed, he said. Pastors who participate include Smith, Gary Graf, Phil Kennedy, Gregg Liming, Joe Mehesy and Jeff McDonald.

A call for a detox center

Needs for the jail include expanding the facility and adding a detox center, Nowlin said. But securing the long-term funding, a facility and additional staffing would be a challenge.

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin, left, and deputy N. Dan the booking area at the Montezuma County Detention Center.

The jail is frequently over-capacity, which strains resources and staffing, Nowlin said.

A separate four- to five-room room detox center would free up jail space and address the community’s need for alcohol and drug abuse.

It would focus on arrestees with minor and misdemeanor offenses that have an intoxication factor. Counselors would be on hand to help inmates with mental health and addiction problems.

In a detox center format, a suspect might still receive a summons, but generally would be released the next day if sober and medically cleared.

An incapacitated person might also be admitted for a safe place to recover, then receive counseling and be released the next day without criminal charges.

“It is an alternative to jail for certain cases,” Nowlin said. “The biggest benefit is to address the critical problem of addiction in the community.”

A detox center also would help speed the release of minor offenders, keeping them out of the jail system, which can take up to 48 hours to be released on bond.

People have lost jobs because that, Nowlin said.

The jail tour highlighted a collective effort by professionals to manage the very human experience of making mistakes, getting arrested and paying the price behind bars.

“They are a part of our community, and the goal is to help them so they don’t come back,“ Pierce said.

“Most inmates behave,” added staff Sgt. Tom Endres. “I view detention work like a giant spider web – the jobs are all intertwined. When there is twang is on the web, we rally to support each other.”

There has only been one escape from the current jail, not long after if first opened.

An inmate pried open a maintenance room door and squeezed through a vent to get out, Pierce said.

The escapee went to a liquor store then attempted to return to the jail and was caught. An alarm was then installed on the door that was pried open.