By Justin Cox

Killeen Daily Herald

As the end of the year approaches, the county's long-awaited jail is finally taking shape. But it will be many years until the new facility sees its full potential.

Construction crews in Belton are nearing the halfway point in the construction of the new Bell County Jail, but county law enforcement personnel will have to wait until next Christmas before the complex is completed.

The project, which began in February, has made steady progress as crews have formed up the outer walls of the primary structure. The project is next to the Bell County Justice Complex; the jail will be the courthouse's sister facility because it has been designed to be an extension arm for the courts.

The new facility's close proximity will be a significant step in enhancing the security of prisoner transfers, Bell County Sheriff Dan Smith said Wednesday.

"The beginning was really the land footprint of 77 acres, so there is a lot of room for expansion for all the facilities for long-term growth," Smith said.

Smith said the facility's estimated completion date of September 2008 has been backed up a couple of months, to December 2008 or perhaps January 2009. The delay resulted from last spring's significant flooding in the county.

But the delay won't affect the county's budget.

"This doesn't affect the county since we have a guaranteed price, so the cost of any delays are being borne by the contractor," Smith said.

While the additional functional enhancements of the new facility are plentiful, its most basic advantage is also its most important.

"Initially, it will house 652 inmates," Smith said. "We presently have a capacity of 706 in our two downtown facilities."

Once the new jail becomes operational, Bell County will have a capacity of housing 1,358 inmates. The facilities in downtown Belton have been stretched to the limit; the jail has experienced an average increase of 30 inmates per year in the past 25 years.

The Bell County Jail regularly operates above capacity. The population fluctuates dramatically, depending on court load and seasonal criminal activity, but as of Monday, the jail housed 724 inmates, 18 over its listed capacity.

In October 2006, the jail peaked at 822 inmates.

In January, Gov. Rick Perry added the county's fifth court, the 426th, to alleviate the overloaded docket. Since that time, Smith said, the jail population has been a bit more manageable, though it is still overpopulated.

The new jail "should satisfy our needs for quite a number of years," Smith said.

But he's hesitant to put a number on the amount of time, especially since past population estimates were dramatically low. In 1985, the downtown facility was built and designed to last 20 years.

While it was 21 years until another facility was constructed from the ground up, county officials were forced to supplement the capacity by remodeling the old jail to add 58 beds, a small upgrade until the county could afford the new facility.

Built on a 77-acre lot, the new jail can adapt to rising populations and is designed with expansion in mind. Unlike the facility in downtown Belton that can only grow upward, the architects designed the new complex to allow for additional "pods" to be built in the future, giving the facility a maximum of 1,300 beds, providing a peak capacity potential of more than 2,000.

Among the gadgetry and innovations is an underground tunnel to transport prisoners to court in a practical realm of total security and anonymity.

Another feature is the video visitation system, whereby the inmate never has to leave his cell to speak with attorneys, family members and friends. Smith said the technology could be available soon to connect with a satellite video station at each county annex. Attorneys in Killeen could potentially never have to go to the jail to speak with their clients; they could just hop in front of a secure video feed.

When the complex is completed, although it will have half the potential inmates that could be added with future pods, the facility's medical and laundry infrastructure already meets the standards of the maximum. Smith said that was a prudent move because as the population rises, so do the requirements of state law.

Because of overcrowding during the summer months, Bell County must lease space from Limestone and Milam counties.

"We pay Limestone County $44 a day per inmate, and Milam County gets $45 a day per inmate," Bell County Jail administrator Robert Patterson said last summer.

When jail inmate numbers spiked during the summer of 2006, Bell County spent $175,000 to lease space from other counties. The sheriff said that now the tables will be turned.

He said that Bell County will have enough open beds to lease space to outlying counties. So instead of paying other counties to hold inmates arrested in Killeen and Temple, other counties that can't afford additions of their own will be helping to fill Bell County coffers.

Groundbreaking for the facility took place in February. Commissioners approved a guaranteed maximum price of more than $37 million for the jail.

Contact Justin Cox at or call (254) 501-7568

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