Year in review: 2010 troubled year at jail

File photo The Curry County jail had another troubled year in 2010, with an escape attempt and other issues.

CNJ staff

Escape attempts, mistaken releases and top brass walking off the job and forcing the sheriff to step in highlighted the year for an already troubled Curry County jail.

Voters also overwhelmingly rejected two tax increases proposed by county commissioners to build a new jail and courthouse complex.

On Feb. 21, 2010, four violent male inmates used a broken desk to smash holes through the walls of their isolation cells, then went on a rampage within the facility causing more than $14,000 in damage before they were subdued by law enforcement officers.

It was one of several incidents at the facility in recent years including escapes, mistaken releases, detention officer arrests and most notably the Aug. 24, 2008, escape of eight violent inmates who stole a key, shimmied up plumbing pipes and cut a hole in the roof with a handmade tool.

One inmate, convicted child-killer Edward Salas, remains at large.

Staff training and retention and structural issues have been chief concerns about the facility, according to county officials.

The night of the February escape attempt, then Interim-Administrator Carlos Ortiz and several members of his command staff walked off the job, citing micro-management and a increase in violent inmates not being addressed appropriately by the county.

Sheriff Matt Murray, who ran unopposed in the Nov. 2 General Election, stepped in and took command of the facility.

Operating under emergency conditions, Murray sent 100 inmates to be housed in Texas facilities so staff could receive training and placed sheriff’s Lt. Keith Bessette as interim administrator, later followed by Kirk Roberts after Bessette asked to be relieved of the responsibility and returned to his regular duties.

Murray managed the facility until June, relinquishing command after the commission rejected a request to hire 10 more personnel he said were needed to relieve strain on a staff stretched too thin.

Current Administrator Keith Norwood was hired by the county and took command June 7, marking the ninth command change at the facility in four years.

Retired from the state Department of Corrections, Norwood has launched inmate work programs and used inmate labor to repair and paint the facility and reinstated volunteer programs within the jail including religious studies and adult education programs.

He has also reported nearly all positions filled and added six more positions to the jail’s roster.

Problems at the facility have continued including two mistaken releases, and an incident in which one of the inmates involved in an escape attempt was allowed to eat lunch outside the jail while on work detail.

Officials have cited poor construction, limitations in organizing inmates within the facility and overcrowding as ongoing reasons for the jail’s problems.

In November, commissioners presented voters with two bond questions aimed at increasing gross receipts and property taxes to build a new jail and courthouse.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the bond issues with a near 73 percent vote against both.

In December, The county commission voted to create two citizen committees to study issues.

Commissioners also approved a pay increase for booking officers in December to bring their pay to a more comparable level with other jails in the region.

Curry County Manager Lance Pyle has reported he is negotiating lower costs to house inmates out of the county at other facilities in the region in an effort to address an increase in jail population.