BELTON — For Maj. Shane Sowell, the new jail administrator for Bell County, the move to the area is both about family and about a new challenge.
Sowell, who is coming from Laredo, will take over the management of the county’s two jails and coordinate the officers who handle local courts and inmates.
Before joining the Bell County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the jail, Sowell worked all around Texas. He has served as a jail administrator in Lamb County as well as an inspector for the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, covering 60 counties and 64 facilities.
Jeff Buuck, chief deputy of the department, said Sowell caught the department’s attention early on due to his experience in the field.
“We really needed expertise in jail standards and in the law enforcement piece,” Buuck said. “Really quickly, when I started putting my feelers out in the headhunting piece to this, (Shane’s) name surfaced and it never got off the top. In comparison to the other candidates, he was way more qualified ... and he is just well known in the state.”
Sowell said one of the reasons he decided to take the job in Bell County was its proximity to Lubbock, where he was born and his parents still live. Bell County is only a four-hour drive away from the city compared to his previous nine-hour drive from South Texas.
A major focus of Sowell’s career — and something he plans to continue here — is helping to train the deputies in the jail and in other departments.
Both Sowell and Buuck said they hope the training will allow the Sheriff’s Department to have more flexibility when dealing with staffing and give employees a chance to grow.
Buuck said the department has previously treated the jail side of the department completely separately from the patrol side, sometimes leading to a lack of communication.
Mental health training
Another of the major points of focus for Sowell is the handling and care of those with mental health issues who often make their way into the jail system.
Sowell said he wants to offer more training to jail staff on how to deal with mental health issues for both their safety and the safety of inmates. He said the training leads toward a decrease in the need for use of force, fewer medical issues and staff retention.
“Our core function is to provide care, control and security, and that care is a pretty broad category,” Sowell said. “Unfortunately, our biggest clientele is those individuals who suffer from mental illness. It takes a different understanding and a different thought process when it comes to mental health inmates.”
Sowell said one of the things he tells the deputies working for him at the jail is that you should treat inmates the same way you would want your family to be treated if they were in jail.
He said this is why he doesn’t yell much.
The population of the jail, Buuck pointed out, is about 95 percent filled with those who have not gone to trial yet.
This large percentage of unadjudicated cases means that many of those who are currently in jail might be found innocent and people should not jump to conclusions about them.
Even if someone is convicted of a crime, Sowell said, his job is less about being punitive and more about making sure those who are in jail don’t, or are less likely, to return. This is why the jail tries to provide programs for inmates, providing them with skills or knowledge.
Buuck said the jail has to deal with the population it is given, really without any say, and they have to do their best for the inmates while they are in the county’s custody.
“These programs are key to the success to keep them, or delay them from coming back,” Buuck said. “Shane is well versed in that, and that is another reason why he was hired. We are going to use the opportunity for these folks, who are in our care and custody, to provide them with options when they are released so maybe they don’t make a decision that brings them back.”
Sowell said he also is excited about the upcoming jail expansion, which he will have a hand in managing and giving input on.
The county has been working to expand its jail facility south of Belton as its inmate population continues to rise. While jail officials like to keep about 925 inmates in the facility, Sowell said the population Friday morning was 1,120 inmates.
The county has had to make agreements with other counties to help house some of these inmates, something Sowell now will help manage.
While expansion of the facility, and managing the growing population, is going to be difficult, Sowell said he is excited.
“The work that they have already put into it is so much,” Sowell said. “The work we have ahead of us for this thing is not going to be easy, but it is going to be fun and it is going to be something to be very proud of. This might sound cliché, but I am a big believer in servant leadership and finding the campground and leaving it cleaner than you found it.”