Waller County Needs to Replace Outdated Jail

Apr 27th, 2017 | By | Category: Lead Article

by Emily Foxhall, Houston Chronicle April 26, 2017

Waller County officials may soon replace what a recent report described as an “inefficient, outdated” jail that has been under particularly intense scrutiny since the 2015 death of Sandra Bland.

The project has for years been on the county’s radar, County Judge Trey Duhon said. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has discussed it with local officials. And, with time ticking, it has again come to the forefront: county commissioners plan to talk about hiring an architect to build a new jail at a meeting on Wednesday.

“It has nothing to do with any recent events, or even Sandra Bland, or anything else like that,” Duhon said. Rather, he added, officials worry it will soon no longer meet state standards, forcing the county to pay to house inmates elsewhere.

Last year, an independent committee, which investigated operations after Bland’s case drew calls for reform, recommended replacing the 110-bed facility. It described the building as “inefficient, outdated, and neither safe nor healthy for guards, staff, and inmates.”

And while much has changed in the rural county northwest of downtown Houston, including the recent hiring of a county construction manager and new, incoming jail administrator, problems persist.
The jail is listed as non-compliant by the state jail standards commission. While investigating a sexual assault allegation in recent months, county officials learned that an improperly supervised male inmate had passed contraband through an unsecured opening, where food is usually passed, to female inmates – violating three rules.

Built in the late 1980s, the jail is well behind the curve of contemporary design, especially when it comes to inmate supervision, officials say. It includes metal components prone to rusting. Maintenance costs about $150,000 a year, according to the sheriff, be it to re-seal the roof, fix toilets or address ventilation issues.

Thirty years is also about the end of a jail’s lifespan, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the commission on jail standards. Such facilities are in constant use, housing individuals who go out of their way to destroy and vandalize them, rather than protect and care for them.

Discussion of replacing the Waller County jail dates back to around 2006 and 2007, when problems with the lavatories and rust in cells arose, Wood said. The commission did an analysis in 2009 and again in 2014 for what a new jail would need. The 2014 report, which would need to be updated, recommended a minimum 144-bed jail, expandable to 192 beds.

“Everybody is on the same page,” said Paul Looney, an attorney who put together the committee that made the recommendations after Bland’s death. “This is desperate. It’s mandatory. And it has to be done swiftly.”

Taxpayer concerns

Bland was found hanged in her cell in July 2015 – three days after she was pulled over by a state trooper for allegedly failing to signal a lane change. When she refused the trooper’s order to put out a cigarette, the two became involved in a heated exchange, culminating in her arrest for allegedly assaulting a public servant. Authorities ruled her death a suicide. The trooper was subsequently fired and charged with perjury.

The state commission on jail standards also found that the Waller County jail did not comply with state standards regarding staff training and observations.Sheriff R. Glenn Smith said he believed a new design could greatly improve management of inmates, but said the facility should not be blamed for Bland’s death. And while he agreed the facility now desperately needs to be replaced, he also remained cognizant of the cost.

“The need is tremendously there,” Smith said. “But I pay taxes, too.”

Still in project phase

Smith has taken steps to address the recent compliance issue, he said. Two staff members were terminated, and two more quit. The new jail administrator is expected to start May 8. “We’re on the mend,” Smith said.

An updated facility would allow for better supervision and use of staff, but county commissioners often reject building new jails, said Diana Claitor of the Texas Jail Project. The public can also push back against funding such projects, not grasping how essential they are to the health of the community.

“It’s easily kind of put at the bottom of the list of what the county needs, and it should be at the top,” she said.

County Construction Manager Danny Rothe, tapped about a month ago to help manage projects in the fast-growing area, said rebuilding the current jail is “priority one.”

Rothe plans eventually to build on a 2014 facilities review to put together a review of current and future building needs. Town Hall discussions with the community on the jail project could follow Wednesday’s meeting, the county judge said.

The ultimate decision for whether to move forward will fall to commissioners.

“Yes, we have the need for a jail; yes, we are pursuing a jail,” Rothe said, but “it’s technically not a real project yet.”

2 Comments to “Waller County Needs to Replace Outdated Jail”

  1. admin says:

    Texas Jail Project says: Glad to see this good article about jail conditions by Emily Foxhall. Interesting to see how Wallter County Jail seeks to improve conditions by hiring a new jail administrator, but more details are needed, so that the public better understands how a deteriorating jail can harm inmates and lower staff performance and understands the need for funding a new jail. And if possible, don’t demonize all inmates by saying they “go out of their way to destroy and vandalize [the jail], rather than protect and care for them.” I realize that’s probably what Mr. Wood and the sheriff say, but there are plenty of people held in jail who don’t damage anything, deliberately or otherwise.

  2. Krish says:

    I was particularly impressed by the ’10 Takeaways from the Sandra Bland review’ in that article. Number 5 is – Proper language:
    Create a zero tolerance police against the use of derogatory language by sheriff’s office staff. “The risk of dehumanizing language will be translated into inhumane actions,” notes the report. “Epithets such as turd, thug, gangbanger and piece of shit were sometimes used to describe subject.”

    Isn’t this one of the most frequent complaints we hear from ex-incarcerated persons? “They treated me worse than an animal” , “I wish they would just treat me like a human being!” and “Why do they always have to use such filthy language?” Actions follow words. What a radical concept!

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