GATESVILLE — Walking into the crowded, noisy and often hectic confines of the Coryell County Jail is “kind of like going home” for Rita Thomas.
Thomas took over as jail administrator on Jan. 1, succeeding Kenneth Green, who retired from the post in December.
Thomas spent more than 25 years rising through the ranks of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She was warden of the Crain Unit in Gatesville when she retired from the prison system in 2009.
She worked two years as the crime victims coordinator for the 52nd Judicial District and was about to move to the Adult Probation Department when Sheriff Johnny Burks tapped her to replace Green as jail administrator.
Burks said Green’s retirement after 12 years took him by surprise, but he moved quickly to recruit Thomas to fill the post.
On the day Burks announced Green’s departure to the county commissioners court he asked the commissioners to raise the base salary for the jail administrator from $39,000 to $44,000.
Burks said the higher base salary, which was not higher than Green earned with step raises, would let him hire a well-qualified, experienced replacement.
He already had someone in mind.
“Rita Thomas is the top of the line,” Burks told the commissioners.
“I’m a happy camper,” Thomas said. “I was extremely happy when Sheriff Burks asked me if I would take the job.”
Thomas, who assumed the rank of lieutenant with the jail job, said running a jail is similar to running a prison, “but I do remind myself that I am not dealing with convicted felons” in the jail population.
“I was fortunate to follow another retired warden, Lt. Green,” she said. “He had set up standards and procedures in the jail similar to a prison. It was kind of like going home.”
As she walked to her office past a queue of inmates, one man in wide-striped prisoner garb called out to Thomas.
“What about that new TV?” the man asked.
“You didn’t clean the wall,” Thomas said.
The man muttered in protest as Thomas moved down the corridor.
“He said he wanted a new television, and I told him he needed to clean the wall first,” Thomas told a visitor. “I am not buying a new TV.”
The Coryell County Jail has been crowded over its capacity for the past several years, forcing the county to board some inmates in Milam, McLennan and Limestone counties at a cost of about $50 a day per inmate.
An average of 22 inmates are boarded out of the county every day, Thomas said, although the figure fluctuates day to day.
“We try to keep no more than 82 inmates in our jail,” she said.
Juggling the inmate population to keep the numbers is the job of Cpl. Pam Heck, Thomas said, “and she does an outstanding job.”
Thomas manages a staff of 27, although she is losing two officers this month. Fortunately, because Gatesville is a prison town, filling vacancies is not hard, she said.
“We have three jailers and a corporal to run a 12-hour shift,” she said. “I will be the first to tell you the jailers work fast and furiously all day. They run control, run the floor, run booking.”
The jailers rotate through the positions, she said. “Cross training in a jail this size is extremely important.”
County officials, including Burks, have been pushing for a bigger jail for years.
“The need is there,” Thomas said. “Whether we will get a new one, that is a question for someone other than me.”