Jail, courthouse issues echo previous debate

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson District Judge Teddy Hartley talks with visitors in the hallway of what used to be the Curry County jail on the third floor of the courthouse. After a new jail was built in 1993, the area that previously housed 33 inmates was converted to office space for the courts.

Sharna Johnson

It’s been 19 years since Curry County voters approved a tax increase to build a new jail. Many issues are the same this time around.

Voters will be asked Nov. 2 to approve two bond questions — one for a property tax increase to pay a $16.5 million general obligation bond for a new courthouse; the other will increase gross receipts taxes .25 percent to pay for a new jail.

Officials say the price will total $33 million, making the project the most expensive and expansive in Curry County history.

Officials say they are needed because of threatened lawsuits and security concerns that pose danger to the public and inmates.

They also cite costs from jail overcrowding and poor construction of the current jail approved in 1991.

Officials say the courthouse is outdated, difficult to secure and lacks needed room.

• • •

During a special election held Oct. 22, 1991, voters approved a bond allowing the county to build the current jail, but not without contention and debate.

The issue dominated local news with dozens of articles in the Clovis News Journal before the election.

Officials campaigned voters for months leading to the election. They contended a new jail was needed because of overcrowding, growing costs to house inmates out of county, substandard facilities, lack of facilities to classify inmates and the threat of a lawsuit, which they said would force the county to build a new jail anyway, but on someone else’s terms.

The constellation of issues behind the bond questions today is remarkably like those in 1991, said Commissioner Frank Blackburn, who was also a commissioner when voters approved building today’s jail.

Blackburn said he disliked the threats of lawsuits today and in 1991.

“It makes you look like you’re not taking care of your business by bringing a threat to us. That does kind of bother me,” he said. “I don’t like to pressure the voter in that manner but that’s the way it is.”

Last week, District Judge Teddy Hartley, who has been at the forefront of the contention the courthouse is not safe and the county is not meeting its statutory obligation to the courts, issued a veiled threat of litigation if the bond doesn’t pass.

“We’ll hide behind anything we have not to answer that right now,” he said with a chuckle. “(The decision to pursue litigation) will be made after the election; we’ll (judges) have to sit down and talk.”

• • •

News stories in 1991 referred to the issue as an uphill battle trying to convince voters of the need for a new jail after they had historically fought against it.

In 1982, voters defeated a bond for a $4.7 million addition to the courthouse and jail.

And again in 1983, voters rejected a bond for a $5.4 million jail officials wanted to build at Seventh and Axtell streets on the former site of the Eugene Field School.

But in 1986 the county jail, located on the third floor of the courthouse, was found to be out of compliance with federal standards and was ordered to house no more than 33 inmates.

Those same federal standards also required the jail provide a recreation area, segregated housing for mental patients and improved medical care.

Officials looking for solutions explored the possibility of privatizing the jail, creating a combined Roosevelt/Curry County jail and leasing a facility

In 1989, a local grand jury called for building a 200-bed facility, adding to the growing pressure of federal standards and the costs of housing two-thirds of its inmates elsewhere.

“We’ve been working on it night and day nearly, and we selected the plan we thought would serve our county’s needs the best. We would like your support. We’ve been going out into the community, trying to drum up support,” Blackburn told a group of city and county leaders at a meeting in October 1991.

And the money saved was projected to solve the county’s problems.

“At the end of 15 1/2 years, just the savings would pay for that jail,” then-jail administrator Tom Swearingen was quoted as saying in an August 1991 CNJ article.

“The old facility was never designed to hold the amount of inmates that it does,” Swearingen said two months later, touting the savings to the county of keeping inmates in a local facility instead of transporting them to other counties.

The county worked with architects to design a building and began seeking voter support, getting out the word that a lawsuit had been threatened if the issue didn’t pass.

“A federal judge can come in here and say, ‘We will build you a jail and I will tell you how to pay for it.’ It’ll be a lot bigger and it’ll cost you twice as much,” Architect Eldon Smith told a group in September 1991 when discussing plans for the facility. “The county commission is bent on doing a plain vanilla jail and that’s what it’s going to be.”

• • •

Looking back, Blackburn said the jail the county built at the time was a drastic improvement over the one they had and he stands firm that the county didn’t cut corners. Today’s problems are because inmates have changed and the needs of the jail have changed, he said.

“That jail was adequate for that time and we didn’t have any issues with the quality of the jail at that time; it was so much better than the old one,” he said.

“There’s been a lot said about the jail, that it wasn’t built properly and all that, but it was at the time… (And with 208 beds), that was four more than we ever thought we’d need.”

Blackburn said they never realized the facility would be overflowing again in 10 years with the county again incurring costs to house inmates out of county.

But voters at the time expressed frustration and questioned the planned facility’s future if inmate populations continued to grow.

Resident Marvin Huguley voiced his concerns during a public meeting 11 days before the election.

“If this rate continues, we’re looking at overcrowding again in less than four years,” he said. “Then will you have to come back with another bond issue?”

Huguley, who still lives in Clovis, said he remembers making the comments at the meeting nearly 20 years ago.

“I remember saying that and I really believed it at the time because of the stats they were giving us at that time,” he said. “The way I saw it, it was just plain arithmetic that it was going to be increasing in a short period of time. It just didn’t pencil out that that jail was going to last very long.”

The 208-bed, $5 million facility opened Sept. 28, 1993, with almost 50 percent of its capacity met.

• • •

Seventeen years later, an annex has been added to house an additional 54 inmates and the county has an estimated average of 50 inmates housed out of county at any given time at an annual cost of around $430,000, officials have said.

If voters on Nov. 2 approve the proposed two-story, 120-bed facility, which will supplement the current jail’s 262 inmate slots, the facility will open its doors with about 20 percent capacity remaining.

Commissioner Wendell Bostwick, whose father Darrel Bostwick was a commissioner in 1991, said he thinks it was poor planning back then that has caused a repeat of the dilemma, but he believes the approach is different now.

“I think that we’re going at it the opposite way. These guys (1991 county officials) passed the bond and then (planned) the jail. I’m not sure that they did the due diligence,” he said. “They basically got their money together and then built what they thought they could. It’s a totally different approach to me.”

Darrel Bostwick couldn’t be reached for comment.

Wendell Bostwick said he and his father haven’t really discussed the history of the jail.

“I haven’t asked him. I guess that’s one of those things that I don’t spend a lot of time looking back on,” he said, though he said his father did warn him when he was considering running for a commission seat.

“Dad said, ‘Let me tell you about it up front; that jail is going to be your biggest headache,’ and he wasn’t wrong,” he said.

Bostwick said he believes a new jail is the best answer the county has to solve issues.

“Our jail sufficed for a few years. It’s kind of like a dam holding water. If you put enough pressure on it, the weak parts are going to start showing up … and we gotta fix it before we bust the dam,” he said.

The thought that the same issues may arise again in a few years is, “the nature of the business,” Wendell Bostwick said.

As for Blackburn, after building one jail and now supporting construction of another, he has learned not to look too far ahead in the ever-changing arena of detention.

“I think it’s very necessary and I think they’re adequate for the time (they’re built) but I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen 17 years from now at all,” he said.