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Muñoz tells Howard County: Build a New Jail

Jan 11th, 2010 | Category: Conditions in County Jails, Howard County

by Thomas Jenkins, Tuesday, 21 August 2007

As promised, Adan Munoz Jr., executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, delivered a letter to Howard County commissioners this week outlining the consequences of another failed bond election to fund the construction of a new county jail.

“It should be noted that if the voters do not approve the proposed bond issue, then Howard County officials need to understand the possible consequences,” Munoz writes. “Howard County is subject to annual inspections by the commission, and if, at any time, it is determined that the facility is again in a state of non-compliance, the possibility of ordering the facility closed remains an option.

“The role of the Commission on Jail Standards as a regulatory agency is to ensure that county jails are operated in a safe and secure manner in order to protect the public, staff and inmates. This agency remains cognizant of the variances in effect for the Howard County Jail and the potential for issues to arise in the future.”

And while the letter may lack the thunder of County Judge Mark Barr’s earlier explanation of “pass it or we’ll shut you down,” county officials say that’s exactly what it means.

“That’s pretty much what he told us when we were down in Austin,” said Barr. “The reason the commissioners and I had him write that letter was to explain to the public where he’s coming from, what he’s telling us and where we are on the variances. It makes it a little bit clearer to people what we’re looking at.

“It didn’t say he’s going to close our jail down, but we still have some life safety issues that we need to address, and the only way to address them is with a new jail.”

The letter lists four variances that have been granted to the county over the past several decades, including:

• Four single cells do not have access to the day rooms. Inability to accommodate inmates to walk out of their cells to day rooms could be challenged by inmates who stay in their cells 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

• Insufficient square footage is provided — 92.6 square feet is provided per inmate with 94 square feet required by state standards.

• Remote control of cells is not provided to all cells. According to Munoz, “When the facility was built, the ability to lock and unlock all doors from a remote area was not provided, whereas minimum jail standards and life safety code requires that this capability be provided.”

• Corridors are not 4 feet wide. Officer observation corridors are less than the width required by minimum jail standards and could hinder officers during an emergency, according to Munoz.

According to Commissioner Jerry Kilgore, Munoz told commissioners he will be looking for “progress” from the court.

“He said several times he and the commission won’t shut us down as long as we’re making progress,” said Kilgore. “That means if the bond fails, we’re going to have to move forward in a different direction.”

That direction — the use of certificates of obligation to fund the construction of a new jail — has already divided commissioners.

“If the bond fails, COs are the only options I’m aware of,” said Commissioner Bill Crooker, who has supported the use of COs since the question of financing was approached by the court.

“I made a commitment not to use COs when I was elected,” said Barr. “And I’m going to stand by that. However, if there’s some other way to finance a jail, I don’t know what it is.”

The use of certificates of obligation, however, could trigger a petition — and subsequently, a bond election — that would once again put the matter in the hands of Howard County voters, who voted-down a bond in November.

The county jail was shut down by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in November 2006, after the facility’s smoke evacuation system failed to meet requirements during a pair of tests in 2006.

Barr said the closure of the existing jail following November’s election would be disastrous for the county.

“In short, it would bankrupt the county. We’re already making drastic cuts to the budget because of the last closing, and we would be forced to either make more drastic, large cuts or look to raise the tax rate above the rollback rate,” said Barr. “The county simply can’t survive another jail closure. The county would be bankrupt within a year.”

Contact Staff Writer Thomas Jenkins at 263-7331 ext. 232 or by e-mail at citydesk@bigspringherald.com.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 22 August 2007 )

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