The operation of the county jail is one of the most complex and expensive services provided by county government. Chapter 351 of the Local Government Code establishes the duty to provide local jails. In Section 351.041, the sheriff of each county is identified as the keeper of the county jail and charged with the duty to safely keep prisoners committed by proper authority. In all but 18 Texas counties, sheriffs fulfill the daily demands of this responsibility. Section 351.001, compels the commissioners court to share in this responsibility by providing safe and suitable jails for the county.
The definition of “safe and suitable” has long been the subject of discussion and caused more than one colorful budget hearing. This partnership charges the sheriff with the duty of operating the county jail and the commissioners with funding the operation. Regardless of the task at hand, a relationship where two entities must decide what is suitable and one entity decides what can be funded can be difficult at best. Sheriffs and commissioners approach this duty from different perspectives. The sheriff’s primary concern is a safe and secure jail, while commissioners work to balance services with operational costs, debt, and tax rates.
Operation of the county jail is arguably the most expensive responsibility of county government. The normal requirements to operate a safe and secure jail are diverse. Staffing is the most expensive and critical issue. Salaries and benefits make up a large segment of the jail budget. In addition, commissioners may be asked to approve contracts for jail services including food service, health care, and inmate transportation. In comparison to other county departments, the county jail requires substantial personnel and operational costs. In most counties, the road and bridge department is the only department that compares when it comes to the demand on the county budget.
An important hidden cost of jail operations is liability. Liability is a common justification for increased funding of jail operations. Whether the discussion focuses on food cost, medical care, or staffing, every aspect of jail operations has been litigated. Counties have been the subject of lawsuits for every imaginable reason. Operating a safe and secure jail can eliminate many costs related to litigation. Legal costs related to frivolous lawsuits continue to be an expensive problem, but pale in comparison to the cost of a successful lawsuit.
The sheriff works diligently to reduce the cost of litigation and judgments. The words “safety” and “security” are repeated in mission statements of sheriff’s offices across the state. The word safety refers to the duty to protect persons in custody, and just as importantly to protect the safety of officers who work in county jails. Security refers to the physical security of the facility. Citizens have an expectation that local jails will be operated in a safe and secure manner. A key benchmark for the operation of a safe and secure county jail is compliance with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Compliance with minimum standards can reduce the likelihood of litigation and the possibility of being successfully sued.
State minimum standards govern a wide variety of areas related to jail operations. Minimum standards are developed using case law and input from experienced practitioners in the field of county corrections. Because minimum standards are based on case law and professional practice, they act as an operational guide for sheriffs and assist in reducing liability. A county jail in compliance with minimum standards is less likely to be the subject of a successful lawsuit.
The ultimate objective of county government is to serve our citizens. This includes the operation of a safe and secure jail. Many county sheriffs and commissioners courts have an outstanding working relationship. Counties where the commissioners court takes a proactive approach to jail operations seem to have the best results.
The appointment of a court liaison will help the court make critical decisions concerning the jail. A commissioner serving as the court’s liaison can make frequent contact with the sheriff and jail officials to evaluate needs and current problems. As the court liaison becomes familiar with jail operations and requirements, he or she can serve as an informed member of the commissioners court charged with evaluating and reporting back to the court regarding requests from the sheriff. This relationship will also help the court anticipate future growth and plan appropriately within the restrictions of the county budget. A relationship where a good-faith effort to meet the need of jail operations is balanced with fiscal responsibility can create the foundation for the successful operation of a county jail.
Jail Administrator Wayne Dicky has been employed by the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office for 20 years. He has served the Sheriff’s Office as a detention officer, shift supervisor, facility supervisor, and patrol deputy. He has served as the Jail Administrator for nine years. He has earned TCLEOSE certification as a Master Peace Officer and Master Jailer. He has held the designation of Certified Jail Manager from the American Jail Association since 2001. He currently serves on the American Jail Association’s Jail Manager Certification Commission. He graduated in the 23rd class of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) Leadership Command College. He attended the 199th Session of the FBI National Academy. He is Past-President of the Texas Jail Association. He is active with the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce and serves as a coordinator for Leadership Brazos and Junior Leadership Brazos. He is an adult leader for the Brazos County 4-H Sportsman’s Club and serves as treasurer for the Brazos County Skeet & Trap Club. He serves on the Board of Directors of Junior Achievement of Brazos Valley.
By Wayne Dicky, Brazos County Jail Administrator