Coryell County sheriff gives tour of jail ahead of special election
By BRITTANY FHOLER
Coryell County Sheriff Scott Williams gave media outlets a tour of the county jail Monday afternoon and shared more information on the current needs that the jail and county are facing.
Williams and his staff were notified last week that the Coryell County Jail was found out of compliance due to overcrowding by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, following a surprise inspection on April 14.
Previously, TCJS had requested that the Coryell County Sheriff’s Office provide to the state weekly reports on population numbers within the jail, including those inmates who are “paper ready” to be sent to Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities. On April 8, 2021, Coryell County had provided the requested information, where it was determined that their population was 103, which was over the rated facility capacity number of 92. Upon further review, it was revealed Coryell County had been housing inmates over capacity, with several days in early to mid-April having the population at or near 100. The number dropped down on April 14 as inmates were sent to another county.
As a result, Coryell County is now required to send daily reports of inmate population numbers and a plan of action must be developed with input from county stakeholders in order to prevent overcrowding issues, according to the TCJS non-compliance report.
As of Monday, Coryell County was housing 89 inmates in county and 104 out of county, for a total of 193.
As an elected official, Williams cannot campaign one way or the other for the bond election, but he said that the county’s current jail had a lot of things that needed fixing or improving, number one being space.
“When you’re housing more out of county than you are in county, it becomes a financial issue,” Williams said. “We spend $1.1 to $1.3 million every year housing out of county.”
He added that the jail also had some security issues compared to a more modernly designed facility.
In the current facility, the hallways are open, and jailers have to move inmates through the hallways to common areas like the recreation yard or medical area. There are a lot of blind spots in the jail, which has lots of cameras to make up the difference for the jailers.
The county has had inmates try to escape from the rec yard, and one even got into the ceiling and made his way to the front, Williams said. Evidence of the attempted escapes from the rec yard can be seen in the wire fencing along the top of the wall. The space is completely enclosed. The rec yard is approximately 12-feet above the street level, and a residential neighborhood lies just on the other side of the wall.
This month’s out of compliance report is not the first time the county has had issues with compliance with TCJS due to the facility itself. In April 2019, the jail failed inspection after significant preventative maintenance issues were identified, including cracked metal benches, roof leaks and cracked/chipped mirrors.
“This time, we have been taken out of compliance due to overcrowding,” Williams said. “Sometimes, a lot of times, the beds are not there to move our inmates to, whether it be for staffing issues at other jails or they have those beds promised to someone else. We can’t ask the PDs and the Sheriff’s Office deputies and DPS to stop doing their job, so that put us over, well over.”
Williams explained that the Texas Commission of Jail Standards completed an analysis with the county to figure out the size necessary for its projected growth and came back with a number of 240 beds. The architect chosen by the county, Southwest Architects, designed a 250-bed facility to meet that need and keep the county on track for its 10-year plan.
Williams also pushed back against the notion that it is cheaper to house outside of the county compared to in county.
“It depends on where you’re housing. Some of our contracts are for as low as $50 a day per inmate and some are $84 a day per inmate,” Williams said. “I’m a big believer if we could house them for $50 a day, that is somewhat cheaper than what we could house them here for, but unfortunately, those beds are not there, and if they are there, there is a staffing problem. I have spoken to all these sheriffs who we have contracted with, and they’re ready to help when they can but if they don’t have the staff to meet the state requirements of 1 in 48, they’re not going to fall out of compliance to come help me.”
He added there is no guarantee that the county will be able to continue to house of out county.
“According to the Commission, if you’re banking on housing out of county, you’re failing miserably,” Williams said. “That is just something that is not a good idea. If you have a guaranteed allotment of beds, that’s a good thing, but right now, we contract per bed. If they have a bed available, we can rent that space.”
Coryell County has agreements with six counties for housing its inmates: Bosque, Burnet, Limestone, McLennan, Mills and Milam County. The agreements are approved every year, and the cost per inmate per day has increased in certain counties since the first agreement.
Milam County is the only county that does transportation. The cost per day per inmate that Williams mentioned does not factor in the cost associated with transporting the inmates to and from Coryell County and the other counties, which is the responsibility of the jailers and/or Sheriff’s Office deputies.
With the transportation of inmates back and forth between courts and the different counties, this also ends up taking deputies off the streets of Coryell County, Williams said.
Williams said the county has been paying to house out of county since 2011, with the lowest cost for out of county inmate housing being around $250,000. Since Williams has been in office, he said the county has been exceeding the 80 percent capacity requirement daily. The state requires county jails to save 10 percent of beds for inmate classification purposes and 10 percent for segregation purposes.
The female inmates have to be kept separate from the male inmates- out of view and unable to hear each other- and the minimum security, medium security and maximum security inmates must also be separated. Currently, the jail uses sheets to block off windows where the female inmates are kept because the jail is so small. The jail has also had to turn its activities room, where the library was, into a storage space for records.
Williams said that the county ships and receives inmates daily between the counties. Coryell County has two district courts (440th and 52nd) and a County Court at Law, and their dockets range from five to 20 inmates, depending on the case.
“My jail is full today,” Williams said. “We have to get their lists, and if we’re going to bring 20 inmates back to Coryell County, I have to pack up 20 here and ship them out to bring 20 back here, so it’s double work every time.”
Although the inmates are housed in other county jails, they are still the responsibility of Coryell County and Sheriff Williams. Most counties will only take in inmates that are in good health and that show good behavior.
“It’s good business on those sheriffs’ part,” Williams said. “They can make $50 to $84 a day housing a good inmate that’s trouble versus having disciplinary problem or someone with a chronic medical injury or any type of mental illness.”
If the voters of Coryell County overall vote against the bond, Coryell County is “stranded for three years before we can do anything else,” according to Williams.
Williams is referring to the relatively new state law passed in 2015, with HB 1378, which addressed financial transparency and accountability of municipalities, counties and hospital districts regarding debt obligation and included a provision that revised state law and prohibits these entities from using certificates of obligation (which wouldn’t need voter approval) to pay for projects that voters turn down in a bond election during the preceding three years.
“The devastating part of it is, if by chance the Commission was to shut our jail down for lack of compliance, that $1.17 million that we’re spending now to house out of county, and that’s on an average of 75 inmates, now we would have 190 inmates to find places to put them,” Williams said.
Williams added that the jail and Sheriff’s Office are working diligently with TCJS while dealing with the overcrowding. He said he is reaching out to as many other sheriffs and counties as possible, with some as far away as three and a half hours, to establish a relationship in the event of a “worst case scenario” where the county’s jail is shut down.
A large portion of the inmates are pre-trial detainees that have serious felony charges like indecency with a child, murder, aggravated assault, etc. and can’t be released into the community to make space, he added.