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Following escapes, La Plata County budgets $440,000 to improve jail fence

No time frame given for when it will be installed
La Plata County has set aside $440,000 to replace a fence at the La Plata County Jail after two inmates escaped last year. (Durango Herald file)

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office plans to fix the perimeter fence that two inmates scaled last year to escape from the La Plata County Jail.

La Plata County government set aside $440,000 in its 2022 budget for the sheriff’s request to replace and repair the fence surrounding the jail. The money will also go toward the construction of holding areas to contain inmates outside the jail in the event of emergencies.

“The original fence is very old and unsecure,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote in its description of the project in the county budget. “It has been in place since the jail was built and has fallen into a severe state of disrepair.”

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The description noted an inmate, likely Jonah Barrett-Lesko, escaped by scaling the fence.

Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer pursues Jonah Barrett-Lesko on Sept. 21 in the Animas River at Santa Rita Park after he escaped from the La Plata County Jail. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
Jonah Barrett-Lesko gives himself up Sept. 21 after escaping from the La Plata County Jail in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Barrett-Lesko broke out of La Plata County Jail in September before he was arrested about 30 minute later. He was most notably accused of animal abuse for allegedly having sexual intercourse with a horse.

Elias Buck, who was caught early Friday in Phoenix, also escaped the jail from the same location as Barrett-Lesko. Buck was being held on suspicion of motor vehicular theft. Buck is suspected of shooting a Farmington Police Department officer in the arm while on the run.

The county’s general services department developed the $440,000 estimate, said Ted Holteen, spokesman for La Plata County.

The jail will entirely replace the fencing as it expands its footprint to accommodate a new program in which inmates will grow food in geodesic domes outdoors, Holteen said.

The Sheriff’s Office has yet to release a timeline for the replacement.

Sheriff Sean Smith and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office could not be immediately reached for comment as the search for Buck intensified.

Buck

Since Buck fled on Dec. 27, the La Plata County Jail has modified its operations to limit any chances of another escape. Buck was a member of the jail’s trustee program in which inmates perform jobs around the jail to earn “good time.”

In the past, trustees were allowed to do some of their work with less direct oversight, Holteen said.

But now the jail has decreased the number of trustees allowed outside at any one time and increased supervision, Holteen said.

“This particular fence issue is being blown out of proportion,” Holteen said. “... The real solution is the crackdown on the internal procedures with the trustees.”

In addition to procedural changes, the jail has also upgraded its camera system.

The fence replacement was already planned before the two inmates escaped last year, Holteen said.

“Obviously, now it's prioritized,” he said.

The jail’s budget has increased over the last three years. Expenditures for the jail went from a little more than $7.62 million in 2020 to an estimated $8.32 million in 2021. The county’s budget pegged $9.11 million for the jail in 2022.

Holteen said personnel salaries, burgeoning food prices and behavioral health services are driving up costs.

La Plata County Jail accounts for more than a fifth of the county’s general fund expenditures in 2022, which is the county's primary operating fund and the largest source of money for day-to-day services.

Almost a third of the county budget is set aside for public safety, more than public works and health and welfare combined, though public safety was the only government function whose budget decreased from 2021 to 2022.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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