Cramped Courts, Jails Pose Safety, Privacy Concerns

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Janie Bennett, Gila County attorney's office receptionist, said the deluge of paperwork is eating up office space.

As she taps away at a black keyboard, she huddles among stacks of manila envelopes stuffed with documents, beige file cabinets and a fabric-covered partition.

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Deputy Bob Schuler oversees prisoners in the cramped quarters of the Gila County jail. Personnel must take extra precaution when patrolling the facility.

"It's cramped," she said. "It's hard to find places to put stuff."

And that's what it's like in all the judicial facilities that serve Payson and northern Gila County - the workspace is cramped, the courtrooms overflow and prisoners live on top of each other, said Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill. "It's really a disgrace."

Population growth has outpaced infrastructure improvements: More people means more crime.

Juvenile facilities

Public safety personnel who arrest juveniles in Payson or northern Gila County have two options: Send them home or transport them to Globe, because in Payson, holding facilities for minors don't exist.

Instead, those detained for more serious crimes - such as domestic violence or possession of a firearm - are driven immediately to Globe for processing.

A sight-and-sound statute prevents law enforcement from housing juveniles with adults, said Sheriff Deputy Tom Melcher. To protect their safety, minors are not held within the "sight or sound" of adult prisoners.

"We spend a lot of time trying to work it out," Melcher said.

The arresting agency carries the financial and personnel burden of driving the youth - at any time of the night or day - 90 miles one way to Globe.

Some weeks, as many as a half-dozen offenders go south.

"We need separate holding facilities for adults and juveniles," Melcher said.

Payson Police Commander Don Engler said round trip, the run takes anywhere from four to five hours. It costs the department overtime, less coverage and approximately $45 an hour.

The sheriff's transportation costs add up to 50 cents a mile to lease the car from the county.

Engler said juveniles are nabbed for an increasing number of drug charges and violent crimes against parents and siblings, and children who should stay in custody are released to guardians.

"There would be more detaining of juveniles if there were more local facilities," he said.

And, added Cahill, some children - without appropriate supervision - have nowhere to go.

"Many of the parents whose children are in trouble, have economic problems," Cahill said. "But they have to drive 90 miles and back and can't afford it."

County jail

Payson's county jail is a square block of four holding tanks, one of which houses women prisoners. It smells clean, like antiseptic.

A full house - 23 beds - is the norm.

"I've been here four years," said Sheriff's Deputy Bob Schuler. "There used to be lulls, but now it's always busy."

Outdated, small and built in the early 1960s, the jail poses safety concerns for law enforcement.

Officers must stay vigilant in its narrow hallways, just in case a detainee reaches through the blue bars to grab them.

"We're not a housing unit," said Schuler. "If they don't get a bond then we ship them to the housing unit in Globe."

Prisoners stay in Payson's jail on an average of 30 hours. Typically, court proceedings are held in Globe unless it's a high-profile local case, Cahill said.

Although neatly organized, the jail's processing area is cramped with file cabinets and paperwork. Deputies process prisoners in an area the size of two bedrooms. They do everything from restraining prisoners in a special chair to drawing blood to administering alcohol breath tests.

And without the help of a jail medic - a must in many larger jails - officers can face unsanitary and unhealthy interactions.

"My top priority is making sure officers are safe," Schuler said.

Office space

The county complex at the south end of town houses the employees who process county and town legal cases.

Cahill said cramped quarters pose safety, confidentiality and morale concerns.

"The workers have totally inadequate facilities," he said. "They don't have enough space and they have to work on top of each other."

The overflow of the county's court cases are stored in two, large storage units.

Bennett said they try to keep a year's worth of files in the county's second-floor office, but even that's become unrealistic.

Meanwhile, the sight-and-sound rule prevents adult and juvenile probation officers from sharing space. In some instances, as many as three employees work in an unpartitioned office no larger than a bedroom.

One superior court employee sits in a closet-sized area. Her desk is next to the building's communication system - a ceiling-high rack of blue wires and a low-grade hum of computer equipment.

Concentration is challenging; privacy is impossible.

"These people meet with the public," Cahill said. "If you're going to have dedicated employees, you have to give them good and decent space."

Three courts

Three courts in Payson try cases: Gila County Superior Court; Payson Municipal Court and the old Superior Court attached to the jail.

The facilities are small and safety is always a concern - victim and defendant sit within inches of each other.

"Some people are charged and convicted of emotional crimes," Cahill said. "The real danger comes from other types of cases, such as domestic cases where the husband and wife are there. We don't have any metal screening and everyone is in close proximity. If the courtroom is crowded, that intensifies the emotions.

"We've been lucky. We haven't had a problem."

The capacity of the courtroom works if the caseload is light, but that's becoming increasingly infrequent.

Most days, defendants, victims, family and jury members hover around the courtroom for hours, spilling into the hallway.

"We don't have any space for private consultations," Cahill added. "(Defendants and their lawyers) usually meet in the courtyard."

Despite the deficiencies, Melcher said, teamwork helps employees stay focused.

"If we didn't work well together we probably wouldn't get anything done because it's awful."

Payson, Star Valley and county elected officials said they are working toward improving services, including the jail and courts that serve northern Gila County.

-- To reach Felicia Megdal call 474-5251 ext. 116 or e-mail fmegdal@payson.com.

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