Group calls for reforms at Colo. county jail following spate of deaths

A coalition made seven demands of commissioners before marching to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office


By Breeanna Jent
The Gazette

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sunlight glimmered off framed photographs of 18-year-old Dezaree Archuleta, placed in her memory outside the El Paso County Sheriff's Office in downtown Colorado Springs Tuesday morning.

"I wish I could have helped her a little bit more. I feel like I failed her," said Shelly Romero, Archuleta's mother.

Bouquets with yellow and red flowers were strewn atop protest signs calling for accountability from the El Paso County Sheriff's Office for a spate of recent deaths at the Criminal Justice Center — eight so far in 2022.

"CJC should not be a death sentence," one sign read.

Archuleta committed suicide in June while in custody at the jail. Though she exhibited signs of emotional distress, such as self-harm marks and a hopeless demeanor, her family and friends claimed Tuesday she was removed from suicide watch sometime during her 21-day stay and they were never notified.

"I just know it was bad in there for her," Romero said. "... I want something to be done about it. I want Dezaree to change something. Her life mattered and something needs to come good out of all this or this is all for nothing."

Romero and other members of Archuleta's family were joined by friends and representatives from community organizations, including the Colorado Springs People's Coalition, Chinook Center and Colorado Springs Democratic Socialists of America on Tuesday morning as they demanded El Paso County commissioners spearhead reforms at the jail and increase oversight of the Sheriff's Office.

"This is not a demand anymore, but a necessity out of crisis. If you do not do everything in your power to establish independent civilian oversight, more people will die," said Brandon Rincon, a friend of Archuleta's family and an organizer with the Colorado Springs People's Coalition.

The group made seven demands of commissioners during their regular meeting Tuesday before marching to the Sheriff's Office, where they held a memorial for Archuleta:

  1. Independent civilian oversight of El Paso County jails: "That is our main call here today, so we can hold those in power accountable and create transparent streams of information directly from our jails for more personalized and effective reforms and budgeting," Rincon said.
  2. Bail reform: Among three types of bonds set in El Paso County, one is cash bail. The county requires the full amount of the bond paid to the court, in cash, before the defendant is released. Rincon said cash bail further penalizes people who are already struggling to find food, shelter and water because they commit crimes due to lack of resources.
  3. A detailed, transparent six-month plan for: the rehabilitation and release of all nonviolent, nonpredatory offenders.
  4. Reparations for emotional damages caused to: families whose relatives have died while in sheriff's custody.
  5. Establishment of an independent inmate complaint board.
  6. Immediate reinvestment into medical and living facilities at the jail.
  7. An independent investigation into Sheriff Bill Elder for the deaths at the jail.

County Commission Chairman Stan VanderWerf said in an interview Tuesday that commissioners heard the coalition and encourages the group to work with Elder, the elected official representing the Sheriff's Office, regarding their requests.

"The primary office that has responsibility for that is the Sheriff's Office and there's an elected official there, which is Bill Elder. He's done a lot of things in that jail to work on all kinds of issues. ... It's very important, from (commissioners') point of view, that the elected official at the jail handle that."

But outside the Sheriff's Office , the group's calls for Elder to speak with them went unanswered.

"I pray for that. I really want some closure," Romero said. "... I need them to be held accountable for it and acknowledge it. It's nothing to them. It's just another name that goes on their list of deaths. And she was my daughter."

Sheriff's spokeswoman Sgt. Deborah Mynatt said that while the department doesn't have a civilian oversight committee, it conducts a "comprehensive" review after every "critical incident in the jail." The reviews examine the office's emergency response and, when appropriate, "relevant factors" concerning the inmate's medical care.

"The review allows the Sheriff's Office to determine how operations may be improved and what operations are working well, with specific focus in the areas of policy, equipment, communications and training," Mynatt said.

The department also invites residents to attend its Citizens' Academy to learn more about the Sheriff's Office. For years, it also had a Sheriff's Citizens' Advisory Council that was paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. That council was tasked with offering advice and recommendations after researching challenges the office was facing, Mynatt said.

Last year, the Sheriff's Office started its Community Conversations outreach effort, bringing together county residents and members of the Sheriff's Office to discuss their concerns. But that program also stalled due to the pandemic, she said.

Rincon said the citizen coalition will continue pushing for reform.

"Our next steps are to keep the pressure up on our county government and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. Honestly, we just want them to speak, because they haven't," Rincon said.

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