‘I am embarrassed’ says Pitkin County sheriff after consensual sex between inmates, smuggled cellphone at Aspen jail
A Pitkin County Jail inmate charged earlier this month with using a smuggled cellphone to text his family also was sanctioned last spring for having sex with a female inmate, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Wednesday.
Both incidents, along with at least two others in the past 14 months, have led to several changes at the jail, including different color uniforms for women and more frequent inmate check-ups, he said.
“I am embarrassed,” DiSalvo said. “I can’t even give you a good excuse. We did not do a good job. I want the community to know that this is unacceptable.”
The consensual sex between Brolin McConnell, 31, and Jennifer Helms, 36, occurred April 4 in the middle of the afternoon in his cell and lasted for at least two hours, DiSalvo said. Inmates are supposed to be checked on by jail deputies every 30 to 40 minutes, he said.
And while the sex wasn’t a crime, it is nonetheless problematic, the sheriff said.
“They spent two hours in a cell … having sex without being noticed by my detention staff,” DiSalvo said. “So many things could have happened in those two hours.”
That list of possibilities includes sexual assault or general assault that could have involved torture given the amount of time involved, he said. In addition, Helms — who currently is serving time in state prison in Pueblo — could have become pregnant or the two could have given each other sexually transmitted diseases, DiSalvo said. Finally, if one party alleged the sex was not consensual, the county would be liable in the event of a lawsuit, he said.
“We were not diligent enough in our checks,” he said, adding that the sexual encounter was reported to jail officials by another inmate.
Jail Director Don Bird declined to comment. No jail deputies were punished as a result of any of the incidents, DiSalvo said.
“I just don’t believe that kind of reprimand works with adults,” the sheriff said. “I hope the people who were working when this happened are as embarrassed as I am.”
Jail policies allow male and female inmates to mingle together in the jail’s large commons room. Male and female inmates cannot mingle together in the “day rooms” located outside their cells or in cells, DiSalvo said.
Those rules harken back to a community-jail philosophy that frowns on locking down inmates in the day rooms or in their cells, he said. Because the jail doesn’t have a female wing, such a lockdown would occur for either men or women if the mingling wasn’t allowed to occur in the commons area, DiSalvo said.
Also, the sexual encounter took place at a time when the jail had a relatively large female population, he said. That situation, coupled with the fact that several inmates — many with mental health issues — require much more attention from deputies, means less-problematic inmates like McConnell can take advantage, DiSalvo said.
“It’s the inmates’ job to figure out what we’re doing and use it to their advantage,” the sheriff said. “Clearly, (McConnell) knew we were not checking every 30 minutes and he took advantage of it, and that’s my shortcoming.”
While male and female inmates can still mingle in the commons area, women now wear a different color jail uniform and jail deputies now check up on inmates every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, DiSalvo said.
McConnell, a real estate broker from Colorado Springs, is facing a raft of charges including two counts of attempted first-degree murder for allegedly taking three men hostage at gunpoint on Lincoln Creek Road on Independence Pass in July 2016.
Last week, McConnell was charged with possession of contraband in jail for allegedly sending nearly 1,400 text messages to family members using a cellphone smuggled into the jail by another inmate. Allowing inmates access to a cellphone in jail can create innumerable problems, including allowing them to violate no-contact restraining orders and contact others to taint or destroy evidence against them, DiSalvo said. In fact, the inmate who obtained the phone and apparently later loaned it to McConnell did violate a restraining order by contacting the subject of a restraining order, according to court documents.
“We fell down again (with the cellphone),” the sheriff said. “For an inmate already with a major rules violation to have access to a cellphone — that’s our fault.
“My deputies need to do a better job.”
The inmate with the phone — Jim Prudhomme — obtained it after asking to access his personal property being held at the jail, DiSalvo said. That is no longer allowed.
Investigators have not been able to obtain the text messages McConnell allegedly sent to his family.
Bird would not make McConnell available for comment, saying such action must be approved by McConnell’s lawyer. McConnell’s attorney, Harvey Steinberg of Denver, did not return a phone message Wednesday.
The two jail incidents with McConnell are not the only issues involving problems at the jail recently.
In March, an inmate named Kent Muer — who’s been in and out of the jail on drug charges for the previous 15 months — revoked his own bond but allegedly smuggled pills and cocaine into the jail. A jail deputy found the alleged drugs after another inmate reported seeing Muer “very out of it,” according to court documents.
In August 2016, an inmate who may have been high on methamphetamines pried a light housing fixture from the ceiling and used it to hack off a sprinkler head in his cell. Water gushed into the cell and the entire jail for the next 20 minutes while deputies called in reinforcements to deal with the out-of-control inmate.
The incident caused more than $225,000 worth of damage to communications and other electronic equipment in the jail’s basement.
DiSalvo said the jail’s previous plan for dealing with such inmates was to “wait for a bunch of guys,” and then go in and wrestle with the problem inmate, which is what happened. The inmate and one of the deputies who responded received minor injuries in the scuffle.
Now, the jail has an “extraction team” that will put on padded suits of clothing and bull-rush a similar inmate in the future, DiSalvo said. Also, all jail deputies now carry a Taser as a result of the incident, he said.
DiSalvo said he accepts full responsibility for the incidents.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s my job to fix it when it’s broken, and I’m gonna fix it.”
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