By Flint Britton
Planning, designing and building a new county jail can be a daunting task for elected officials. Not only are they required to follow stringent state regulations regarding the housing of inmates, but they also must pay utmost attention to safety and security measures, as well as navigate the politics and controversies that often accompany such projects.
However, the most important aspect of a jail project – according to Bee County Judge Stephanie Moreno, currently overseeing development of a new jail and sheriff’s office – is ensuring that the financial impact will not exceed what taxpayers can handle.
“We’ve been very transparent and open with voters during this whole process,” said Moreno, Bee County’s first female County Judge and, at age 34, among the youngest judges in Texas. “We’ve let the newspaper know everything we’ve done, and they’ve printed lots of stories. We held a town hall meeting, visited the Rotary Club, and talked to the Chamber of Commerce. We’re doing as much as we can to let the community know why we need a new jail and sheriff’s office. The community has been very supportive, and they know that if we don’t do this now, it’s just going to cost us more later. They understand this is an expense they’re going to have to undertake.”
Bee County’s existing 128-bed jail and sheriff’s office opened in 1989 and “was in poor shape when it was built,” according to Moreno, who added that the structure’s foundation began shifting almost immediately. “Within a year, there were cracks in the walls. It was just poorly built, to put it mildly.”
After 28 years of use, the facility has continued to shift resulting in additional cracks in the slab and tile flooring, along exterior walls, and within the sheriff’s office. Other shortcomings of the existing facility include outdated cell locks, insufficient housing for female inmates, and inadequate space for the sheriff’s office staff.
The process of developing a new jail in Bee County began the way many such projects begin – with a needs analysis conducted by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which projected that a 144-bed jail would serve the county for the next 20 years.
Bee County then hired Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects (BSW) to assess the existing sheriff’s office and jail and provide the Commissioners Court with three options, each including a cursory footprint of the sheriff’s office and jail, site layout, and estimated construction costs and schedules.
Members of the Commissioners Court were tasked with determining the best direction for the county based on the following three options:
- renovate and expand the existing sheriff’s office and jail;
- renovate the existing sheriff’s office into the existing jail and build a new jail facility; or
- build a new sheriff’s office and jail.
Upon initial review of the existing sheriff’s office and jail, BSW recommended to the Commissioners Court that expansion of the existing jail should not be studied, since it was bound on three sides by other property owners and only expandable in one direction.
Moreover, renovation and expansion of existing facilities is always difficult. Several questions require careful consideration. For example, how will the county maintain minimum Jail Standards, security and daily staff operations while keeping mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems in operation during construction? Are inmates housed out of the county or moved within the existing jail to avoid construction and workers?
Similar questions apply to renovating the sheriff’s office. It’s a major undertaking to move staff and their equipment to another building so they can continue to operate. The alternative is to require staff to work around the construction, which makes it more difficult for employees to properly do their jobs. Additionally, how much sense does it make to add new equipment and technology systems to a 28-year-old building?
The Commissioners Court agreed with BSW, resulting in removal of the first option to renovate and expand the existing sheriff’s office and jail.
Next, BSW met with county officials and Sheriff Alden E. Southmayd III’s staff to determine the number, size, location, and any special needs of specific rooms within the sheriff’s office and jail, produced preliminary layouts for both, and studied the sites. Once the program and layouts were approved, BSW worked with a jail contractor to determine estimated costs for the remaining two options. The final report indicated that the cost to renovate and expand the existing sheriff’s office into the old jail and construct a new jail would cost more than building both new.
Based on the study, the Bee County Commissioners Court decided to build a new jail with an adjacent sheriff’s office on property the county owns.
The project is currently in the design development drawing phase. Groundbreaking is scheduled for January 2018. Both the sheriff’s office and jail will be constructed simultaneously, with construction completion slated for May 2019.
Hiring BSW Architects marked the beginning of a new phase in the Bee County Jail project, one in which the frequency and intensity of the planning process increased.
Discussions about interior and exterior design issues and historical preservation become almost daily occurrences, with conversations often taking up the better part of a workday. Moreno expects similar discussions will consume the majority of time she is not in the courtroom over the next 18 months.
One of the primary challenges for Bee County officials was determining the future of the county’s first jail, a rugged wood structure built in 1874 that has been the focus of local preservation efforts and moved multiple times. It will be relocated once more and stand adjacent to the new jail and sheriff’s office.
“It’s important for our community to know our history,” Moreno said. “There are very few historical buildings left in the county. Moving the historic jail this time will probably cost $5,000, but it’s worth the price to keep something with an indescribable value to it.”
Additionally, input from BSW’s design team has proven invaluable, Moreno said. Significant recommendations by the firm include the designation of an inmate pre-processing area – where an arresting officer will be able to take care of paperwork while the jailer determines whether the inmate will be accepted – prior to entering the jail.
A last-hour request by the district judge was accommodated by turning the female inmates’ multipurpose room into a small courtroom. The exercise yard for females will be enclosed for both exercise and multipurpose use. The male housing pod will be wrapped around an elevated jailer’s station, allowing views into cells, the multipurpose room and the inmate exercise area.
Moreno plans to be involved with every step of the project. Her vigilance and consistent involvement, as well as that of Bee County Sheriff Southmayd and other local leaders, will be the reason this project succeeds, providing the community with a new, fiscally responsible jail that will serve the county for years to come.
“We know every detail that is going into this jail,” Moreno said. “There are not going to be any surprise costs. I don’t want to have to go back to the voters in two years and say we need another $5 million to finish this project. That’s why we’re so involved in it.”