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Sheriff: Opening jail costly

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Posted: Monday, March 26, 2012 12:00 pm

By Philip Jankowski

Killeen Daily Herald

BELTON - Though the renovations at Bell County's empty Central Avenue Jail in Belton are essentially complete, Sheriff Dan Smith said scenarios exist in which the county would send inmates outside of the county.

Opening the 523-bed jail up to a few inmates is costly, said Smith. If a situation arose where the county jail system went just slightly over capacity, Smith said he would use agreements already in place to send inmates to Milam County.

"Here's my dilemma: If I open the building, we'll have to staff up 40 to 45 personnel," Smith said. "We have to operate the first and third floors. You have to have staff everywhere there are inmates."

The county budgeted about $1.3 million this fiscal year to open the jail if needed. Smith said he wants to avoid spending that money as long as possible.

To place even a few inmates into the renovated jail requires two floors to open because the first floor is designed mainly for intake and kitchen staff.

The first two floors have a maximum jail capacity of 275 inmates, with a few solitary cells and one jail pod for low-risk inmates known as trustees.

The third floor can hold 248 inmates.

Three jail facilities

The county has three jail facilities, though it only operates two. The main jail is part of the Bell County Justice Center Complex, which opened in 2009. The sheriff's office also staffs a smaller jail annex in central Belton.

The total capacity of the two facilities is 817 inmates.

In 2011, the county's jail population peaked just above 700 inmates. State regulators begin eyeing county facilities once their jail population goes above 90 percent of capacity.

Opening the renovated jail faces several challenges. Jail population is cyclical, peaking typically in the late summer and early fall, Smith said.

"It's painful for us to open another facility when we know that we might only have to have those (inmates) in the facility for half the year or three to four months out of the year," he said.

Smith estimated the county system may peak at 800 inmates this year.

A 'perfect storm'

What Smith said he hopes for is a "perfect storm" situation. The county recently renewed a contract with the U.S. Marshals allowing Bell County to take federal inmates.

The ideal scenario would be having the county jail population hit critical levels and taking on federal inmates at the same time.

Smith said he could envision a situation in which the contract with U.S. Marshals, at $50 per inmate per day, could pay for renovations over time.

Staffing the Central Avenue Jail and bringing it online would take about three to four months.

The county jail system also acts as Fort Hood's stockade. The post pays $60.64 per inmate per day, County Judge Jon Burrows said.

When the main jail opened in 2009, the county shut down operations at the Central Avenue Jail, which had been in operation since 1987.

Renovation project

Bell County commissioners then approved a renovation project. The project took roughly 16 months and $6.7 million to complete, Burrows said. Major construction was completed in February 2011, though maintenance crews are still performing minor renovations, Smith said.

Subcontractors and maintenance crews replaced elevators, roofs, the heating and air conditioning system and several pieces of surveillance and commissary equipment, among many other major renovations.

The Central Avenue Jail opened in 1987 after a contentious political battle similar to squabbles over the approval of the construction of the Bell County Justice Center Complex.

Prior to the Central Avenue Jail's completion, the jail system had a capacity of 125 and was overcrowded. It led to mandates from state authorities to either build a new jail or move inmates outside of the county.

Jail brought revenue

Smith came into office in January 1985. He said many people were upset about the county commissioners' decision to build a jail about four times larger than the current jail.

But the decision led to an influx of revenue. Through the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, the county contracted with federal agencies, Collin County and other counties to hold their inmates for a fee.

Over the years, jail contracts with outside agencies and counties generated about $20 million in pure profit for Bell County, Smith said.

"They (commissioners) used that to keep property taxes low," Smith said. "But we saw an inversion start to take place."

As the county grew, the number of beds available for outside contracts shrank along with revenue. Operating costs also increased as personnel salaries funded by outside contracts fell fully on the county to fund.

In 1999, Smith said he predicted that the county would soon have to send inmates outside of the county again.

Inmates sent elsewhere

That prediction came true in 2002 when it needed to send inmates to Milam and Limestone counties in order to stay in compliance with regulations set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

If officials had not complied, the county could have faced sanctions and legal actions from the state.

Keeping a jail population in compliance with jail standards is not as simple as adding more beds to facilities. State standards require inmates be separated by certain demographics.

For instance, men and women cannot be in the same areas of the jail. Other factors apply as well, such as age, propensity for violent behavior and sexual orientation.

Smith said that in order to be able to separate inmates according to those standards, his jails cannot exceed 90 percent capacity. Just because a bed is open does not mean an inmate can be placed there safely, Smith said. For example, a misdemeanor offender would never be placed among violent inmates.

"You need 10 percent available to move people effectively," he said.

Contact Philip Jankowski at philipj@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7553. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcrime.

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