Curry County may need a new jail, but it would cost $20 million and county officials say the best approach for now is to improve the facility that opened in 1993.
An August assessment of the Curry County Adult Detention Center identified multiple security issues that included staffing shortages, outdated policies and procedures and an “abysmal” structural facility.
The assessment was conducted after eight violent inmates — two of whom remain at large — escaped from the jail on Aug. 24. Officials said the inmates stole a key to a plumbing shaft, climbed up pipes and cut a hole in the roof with handmade tools.
The county has hired a firm to conduct an architectural evaluation and give them an idea of what it will take to bring the facility up to an acceptable security level.
“We’d love to have a new (jail), but I think financially that’s out of the question,” County Commissioner Robert Sandoval said.
“We’re just going to have to keep working on this one as fast as we can. ... We do what we can with what we’ve got. It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s a fact of life that we just can’t afford to do much else.”
Commissioner Frank Blackburn said he too believes improving the current facility is the best course for now. “I think eventually that jail’s going to have to be replaced just like the one before, but I don’t see it very soon,” he said.
There are other options, including hiring a private company to manage the jail or close it and pay other counties to house Curry County inmates.
Early next year, County Manager Lance Pyle said he plans to hold a public workshop with commissioners to examine the pros and cons of those options, with a focus on privatization. But officials warn all options will prove costly.
Building a new detention center could cost $20 million or more, Pyle said. He said the likelihood of procuring the funds from the state for such a project is slim in today’s economic environment.
“We’ve talked about approaching our Legislature on and off about this, but then money is so hard to come by these days,” Sandoval said.
Other issues need funding too, Sandoval said. He said roads in the county are in desperate need of repair and the justice community is also in need of a new facility.
Like the funds to build the current facility — around $5 million and the more than $800,000 the county is still paying on its annex — a new facility would most likely have to be paid for by residents through an increase in taxes, officials said.
And they don’t see taxpayers getting behind such an endeavor.
“It’s one of those mandates from our constituents that say, ‘Do something, but don’t raise my taxes.’ A bond (could provide the funds) but would have to be passed by the public,” Sandoval said.
Blackburn was a commissioner when today’s jail was constructed. He said the bond issue failed twice before voters passed it.
“It was a major thing to get that thing passed. It’s not popular with the voters to build a nice (detention) facility like that,” he said.
Prior to building today’s jail, Blackburn said the county had 75 inmates housed on the top level of the courthouse. The recommended capacity was 46.
Blackburn said county employees had to cover their electronic equipment and papers with plastic because inmates often flooded the toilets in the jail. Water would drip through the ceilings into the offices below.
Even with security problems spotlighted by the Aug. 24 escape, Blackburn said he has no regrets or shame over today’s facility. He said detention standards and expectations have changed in the years since it was built and the population it houses has grown dramatically.
“It (is) so much better than what we had,” he said.