Jail dominated county business in 2012

CMI file photo

Rosalie Riley, right, and Whitney of Clovis reviews the ballot count during election night night at the Curry County Courthouse. Riley was elected as the new county clerk.

Curry County's long troubled jail played a pivotal role in elections and politics that dominated the news in 2012.

Voters defeated a $9.3 million bond issue in April that would have paid for a new jail. And, two new commissioners are poised to come on board after a November general election, results of which could change not only how the jail is run, but its focus and where it's located.

Voters also elected Debbie Spriggs the new treasurer to replace Bernice Baker and Rosalie Riley the new county clerk replacing retiring longtime Clerk Coni Jo Lyman.

The jail, however, was center stage all year.

New Commissioner and Clovis businessman Tim Ashley has said it's clear that how the jail is operated now needs to be changed. The other new commissioner, Clovis businessman Ben McDaniel, has said he's ready to change jail Administrator Gerry Billy's chain of command.

Billy's short tenure has been marred by several serious issues at the jail on top of commission politics. In his last appearance of the year earlier this month, Billy and commissioners argued almost two hours over a change in jail policies.

In the end, commissioners adopted all new policies over Billy's objections.

The change expected soon after the first of the year would also give Billy a new supervisor.

When he was hired in February, Billy was placed under the direct supervision of commissioners, relieving County Manager Lance Pyle of the responsibility. It was a move heralded as a new day and direction for the jail by commission Chairman Wendell Bostwick and outgoing Commissioners Caleb Chandler and Dan Stoddard.

However, incumbent Commissioners Frank Blackburn and Robert Sandoval see the noble experiment as a dismal failure.

Sandoval has raised his criticism of the current chain of command at almost every monthly session of commissioners since the change. Blackburn has also recently become more vocal in the need for a change. Together with McDaniel, they are poised with a simple majority vote to place Billy back under Pyle's supervision.

When it comes to addressing issues at the understaffed and frequently over capacity jail, the positions and answers aren't quite so clear.

Ashley and McDaniel have both said they aren't convinced voters are ready to approve any bond issue or new taxes to build a new facility. The defeat of the bond issue in April was the second.

McDaniel said he's not confident voters will approve any bond issue and the message to commissioners is "work with what you have."

What Curry County has is an overcrowded facility with serious health and safety issues for inmates as well as staff.

In June, state inspectors threatened to shut down the jail's kitchen for health and safety violations. The kitchen was allowed to continue operating contingent on commissioners adopting a plan to permanently fix the many issues.

Commissioners have yet to give the state or Billy any plan for repairing or replacing outdated equipment, water leaks and a crumbling floor.

Additionally, several fights among inmates and a flooded jail building dominated headlines.

In June, inmate Jaime Perez, a key state's witness in the murder trial of Louis Guerra, was attacked and beaten by Guerra after the two were placed in same pod of cells. Perez was placed near Guerra despite please from the Perez family and an request by District Attorney Matt Chandler to keep the two separated.

Guerra used a broom handle left out in violation of county policy to assault Perez.

In September, an inmate was accused of breaking off two sprinkler heads during a shakedown, flooding the jail.

Last month, longtime fugitive and accused child killer Noe Torres was assaulted by another inmate while handcuffed to a bench only hours after being transported from a secure state prison to Curry County to face a hearing.

Torres wasn't seriously injured and his attacker, Richard Silva, claimed to be a relative of Carlos Perez, the 10-year-old Clovis boy Torres is accused of killing. Perez family members have denied Silva is any relation.

The jail consumes almost half the county's annual $12 million budget. Because of overcrowding and other issues, a large chunk of that cash — more than $700,000 last year alone — is being spent housing inmates in out-of-county facilities in Roosevelt County and Texas.

While McDaniel leans more toward working with the present facility, Ashley is convinced the jail needs to be moved from downtown Clovis.

"I don't think it's prudent to continue pouring money into the facility at its present location." Ashley said.

Short term, Ashley said he wants to see the kitchen fixed and not with a $4 million expansion proposed by Billy and supported by Bostwick.

Long term, Ashley said, it's always an option to build a regional facility at a remote location. Such a facility might require a bond issue approved by taxpayers, although revenue from other counties using it could ease the burden of paying off the bonds.

"I think," Ashley said, "If you present the public with something the public likes, they will support it."

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