Commissioners say housing inmates at Texas jails not viable option

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson A Parmer County Detention Officer staffs the booking area of the 50-bed jail Monday. Sheriff Randy Geries said his facility is subject to unannounced state inspections at any time.

Sharna Johnson

One reason Curry County officials say they need a new jail is because of a growing, violent inmate population that other jails won’t take and the existing jail can’t handle.

West Texas jail officials said this week they want Curry inmates, they have few restrictions that would prevent housing them, and they have plenty of room … most of the time.

Parmer County Sheriff Randy Geries said he rarely if ever turns down an inmate from Curry or any other county. He said state policies prevent him from accepting only two types of inmates — those charged with escape and those charged with violence against detention officers.

“We don’t have a problem with (inmates accused of) felonies,” he said. “We have housed murderers.”

But less than two weeks ago, the Parmer County jail was full, prompting Curry officials to send inmates to Roosevelt County instead, where the daily rate for incarceration is $25 more per person.

“Parmer County is NOT accepting any of our inmates at this time,” Curry County jail administrative assistant Lora Followill wrote in an e-mail to County Manager Lance Pyle on Oct. 12. “(T)he last two months they have been telling us no or that they are full.”

Geries said he remembers being full, though not for two months.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster,” he said. “With the in and outs that does happen from time to time.”

On Thursday, Geries said he planned to make sure Curry jail officials were aware he again has room for their inmates.

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Curry County Commissioners Wendell Bostwick and Bobby Sandoval have said part of the justification for a new jail is that Curry’s jail is overcrowded and nearby facilities won’t take problem inmates from Curry County.

“Currently other jails will only take our model prisoners,” Bostwick wrote in a letter to the editor of the Clovis News Journal printed Oct. 12.

During an Oct. 4 public forum, Commission Chairman Sandoval said Clovis was “a lot less safe” because other jails turn away inmates. “All we keep, in essence, are the really bad guys,” he said.

On Wednesday, Bostwick reiterated his position that outside facilities reject Curry inmates and said he doesn’t believe comments made to the contrary.

“I think (other facilities) will tell (the CNJ) whatever they think you want to hear. If we were running a jail and had room I think we would be selective on who we took, too,” he said. “Nobody wants to saddle themselves with more problems.”

Sandoval also said Wednesday he stands behind his position that Curry is managing a large, maximum security inmate population because other counties won’t take them.

“My feelings are that we have more bad guys in there than what we can handle and I just can’t fathom us not sending them somewhere when we have the ability to send them,” he said. “We’re keeping the bad guys here because we can’t send them somewhere else.”

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Bailey County’s jail falls under the same state standards as Parmer’s. Assistant Administrator Joey Chavez said his facility would like more inmates from Curry County.

“Our numbers are so small there’s no way for us to really use (the space we have). We don’t house that many,” he said.

Thursday, Geries said Parmer County was housing three inmates from Curry County and had more than 20 empty beds.

Chavez said Bailey County had 35 Curry County inmates, with 39 empty beds.

Dickens County, about three hours from Clovis, has no restrictions on the type of inmates it will accept. Unlike Parmer and Bailey, it can accept inmates charged with attempted escape or those charged with assault on detention officers. On Monday, it had no inmates from Curry County in its 489-bed facility. Dickens officials said they do not release their empty-bed numbers.

In March, Curry County sent 69 inmates to Dickens County so Curry detention officers could receive training following a Feb. 21 escape attempt.

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Curry County voters will be asked Nov. 2 to approve a .25 percent gross receipts tax increase, which the county has said will be used to build a 120-bed, two-story jail, remodel the existing 262-bed facilities and cover operating expenses.

Officials have stated multiple concerns about the existing jail, including structural problems, which contributed to a 2008 escape of eight violent inmates.

But they’ve also said overcrowding has led to safety concerns and sending even minimum-security prisoners out of county is too costly for taxpayers.

Curry officials said they most often send prisoners to Parmer, Bailey or Dickens counties to help alleviate overcrowding.

Their rates range from $39 to $44 per day plus transportation and medical costs.

Officials said they spent $430,000 to house inmates out of county last year; they expect to spend $1 million this year.

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Curry County Jail Administrator Keith Norwood said his staff classifies inmate security levels in four categories — minimum, medium, maximum or isolation.

Norwood said the jail considers 11 factors when classifying an inmate, such as mental and medical health, known enemies, pending charges, gang affiliations, nature of current charges, history of assaultive behavior, immigration status and escape history including absconding from parole or probation.

Based on that criteria, as of Tuesday, Norwood said 72 of the jail’s 237 inmates were classified as maximum security.

Norwood said 51 Curry inmates — whose classification is determined by the receiving facility — were being housed out-of-county as of Tuesday.

Geries said Texas has established classification standards that he must adhere to, so the classification of an out-of-state jail can be like comparing apples and oranges.

When an inmate is brought to his facility, he said he applies Texas standards to them based on their booking and history information and houses them accordingly.

• • •

The Texas jail administrators say they want more business.

“I’m a help to (Curry County),” Parmer County’s Geries said. “I could handle a bunch more today if they needed to. It is a benefit to us and to them.”

Geries said his jail, about 8 miles from Clovis, works well for Curry inmates because of short transport times for court hearings and visitation convenience for families and attorneys.

The Bailey County jail — about 40 minutes southeast of Clovis in Muleshoe — is less convenient but Chavez said it offers free transportation for inmates. If guaranteed inmates, Chavez said Bailey County would consider a video conference system to cut down on the number of trips to court.

“If (Curry County) could promise to keep us at a certain number, we’d try our best to bend over backwards,” he said.

The privately-run Dickens County detention center houses inmates for entities including the Federal Prison Bureau and U.S. Marshals. It has no restrictions on inmate classification and has segregated and secure options for all ranges of inmates, said Peter Argeropulos, senior vice president of Community Education Centers in New Jersey.

Argeropulos said his company provides transportation services and would work with Curry County to install a video conference system to cut down on transports to court hearings and aid in inmate/attorney conferences.

The Curry jail has an average population of 315 inmates, about 245 of which are housed at the jail. The remainder are either housed out of county or on alternative release programs, according to jail officials.

Bostwick said Wednesday that even if Curry County can turn to other counties for help he doesn’t think it has bearing on the issue of whether a new jail is needed. Beyond the added transport and medical costs, he said eventually those other jails will become full with their own inmates and stop offering space for rent.

“I don’t know what relevance (other jails’ ability to house Curry inmates) has because we still … need more space and we can do a lot better job of classification and separation if we have better facilities,” he said. “You’ve got to look beyond today, you’ve got to look to the future a little.”