State fire marshal’s office cautions against tent city

Ryan Lengerich

A state fire official told Curry County commissioners on Tuesday the state won’t sign off on proposed tent housing for jail inmates.

In early August, Commissioner Tim Ashley pitched the idea of housing nonviolent offenders in military surplus tents to alleviate jail overcrowding. Similar facilities have been used in Farmington where county officials built a “tent city,” out of tents used by the military as field hangars for helicopters.

Paul Linville, chief inspector for the state fire marshal’s office in Santa Fe, answered questions in person for commission members. He said there is simply no chance he nor State Fire Marshal John Standefer would approve building the temporary facility.

“This direction you’re taking of a tent city, it’s not going to work,” he said. “It’s going to cost you more money, plus the liability you’re going to assume is tremendous. That will bankrupt this county if they ever had a fire in one of those tents.”

Ashley said the county must find some solution to overcrowding. Curry County houses more than 90 inmates in Texas jails at a cost per inmate of $38.

He said overcrowding has caused significant budget woes, and shipping inmates has become too costly.

“If these (tents) are good enough to house troops overseas with bullets flying over them, then why can’t they house inmates?” Ashley asked.

Linville countered, simply saying inmates will do anything, including setting fire, to escape.

Linville said former Fire Marshal George Chavez approved the Farmington tent facility against many of his colleagues’ recommendations. The new administration will not support the tents.

“You’re putting county employees in harm’s way when you put them in tent city,” he said.

Linville offered a state jail task force’s assistance in assessing the situation in Clovis. Overcrowding is a problem much of the state is fighting as state laws are more strictly enforced, he said.

The commission agreed to throw the dilemma back into the jail committee’s hands for discussion.

Despite the setback, Ashley said he will further consult San Juan County officials for facts and figures about their Farmington facility. And despite Linville’s visit, the problem remains.

“I appreciate this gentleman’s time in coming out here and sharing with us, but at the same point he didn’t give us any answers,” Ashley said. “So to say you’re going to stop us from seeking a solution, I don’t agree with that.”