Problems plague Wichita County Jail & Annex

WICHITA COUNTY, TX (KAUZ) - The Wichita County Jail an Jail Annex are at risk of being shut down by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. On May 6th Wichita County residents will decide whether or not to approve a $70 million-dollar bond proposal to build both a new jail facility and law enforcement center.

"Nothing is consistent between all the jails," said Wichita County Sheriff David Duke.

The problems start at the beginning of the booking process, something Sheriff Duke has described as the "biggest choke point we have in the jail system." The current booking center was built in 1985 and was meant to handle between 8-10 inmates a day, now they're averaging somewhere between 26-32.

It's causing a lot of backups in the booking process, it is impacting more than just the county. It is also taking a negative toll on the local city and state law enforcement as well. Troopers, officers, and deputies are sometimes having to wait as many as 6 hours just to book someone in.

"Now when you have eight hour or nine-hour shift that is half to two thirds of that shift where you are stuck inside of a jail where you're not patrolling you're not answering calls. You're simply sitting inside the garage of the jail watching an inmate" said Lieutenant Ian McMurtrie, Special Projects Section of the Wichita County Sheriffs Office.

If the bond is approved the new booking center would be able to hold up to 72 people. Meaning law enforcement will have more time to get back patrolling and protecting citizens and less time waiting to book someone into jail.

Another problem lies with the downtown county jail's command center and control board, it is so old they don't even make some of the parts for it anymore and must retrofit the electronics sometimes to make it work.

The kitchen works fine but the problem is that it's being overworked. Initially, the kitchen was designed to serve between 200-250 people, today they are cooking up three meals a day for more than 650 people.

"We serve downtown, we serve the annex, and we provide meals for juveniles. So, you've got a kitchen designed for 200 people that is doing three times that," said Lieutenant McMurtrie.

The fifth floor of the jail is for both women and those in segregation, it's also where the medical center is located. Lieutenant McMurtrie says that while he's against solitary confinement which isolates the inmate, the county can not take a risk and leave them in general population.

"With a new jail, a direct supervision facility with a single officer stationed inside a pod (would allow them to) watch somebody with mental issues, gently correct their attitude and say don't take that go over here," said Lieutenant McMurtrie.

Some of the general population cells at the jail have been around since as late as the 1960's and we're not designed for a deputy to be present inside at all times.

"Currently what we have is an officer that goes by at state mandated times. So, he/she goes by, he checks a tank, goes off to check another tank and they know that he is gone so they get up to whatever mischief they're up to until he comes by to do his check again," said Lieutenant McMurtrie.

The new direct supervision pods would be able to hold up to 48 inmates at one time not including a deputy in the middle to keep the inmates under control.

The cells at the Jail Annex hold as many as 24 inmates unsupervised by a deputy. Like the downtown jail, deputies check the cells at state mandated times, Sheriff Duke said it can sometimes make it hard to keep things calm within the cells.

"At our Annex jail now if there are 10 inmates that want to act up, start flooding the cells, throwing things around and wanting to fight everybody we can't just send two or three people in there to stop that when you have 24 inmates in there," said Sheriff Duke.

The annex was built in 1995 out of an old factory as a temporary solution to the county's large inmate population. 21 years later that temporary solution is causing consistent problems for both deputies and inmates.

"We've taken a facility designed for 20 people (and) we've stuck 300 plus people in there and it's overloading the sewage and septic," said Lieutenant McMurtrie.

Sometimes there are leaks within the Annex command center that threaten the electronics including the switch boards and video screens.

"It was not designed to have over 350 people using the toilet every day and the showers every day," said Sheriff Duke.

Inmates can get some recreation time out of their cells. It is normally around an hour or less. For this, inmates are brought to "the yard," a concrete box with a slit in the roof allowing natural light and air to enter from above.

There are pools of liquid visible in the corners of "the yard" but it's not the result of another leak or rainwater coming in from above the slightly open airway above.

"It was temporary. Never supposed to last for very long. So, we didn't put a whole bunch of amenities in there. There's no commode," said Lieutenant McMurtrie.

The new jail would be built on county property and cost $70 million which would be funded through a seven-cent property tax increase per hundred-dollar property value. It would take roughly two years to construct and be fully compliant with the Texas Commission of Jail Standards.

Wichita County Commissioner Mark Beauchamp said it has been a 20-year process to get a new complaint jail and that the TCJS has been very patient with Wichita County up to this point.

"They could literally come down and tell us hey we're closing the jail today, move everyone out. Don't think that they can't do it because they have and they do," said Commissioner Beauchamp.

Just like Commissioner Beauchamp Sheriff Duke also believes the threat of a shutdown is very real if a new jail isn't approved.

"We are listed as a high-risk jail we've been at high risk because of the difficulty in passing jail inspections because of the facility needs. The county has to have a jail it's not an option," said Sheriff Duke.

Lieutenant McMurtrie believes if the new jail is not approved it is not a matter of if the TCJS will close Wichita County but when.

"Not getting a jail will be much more expensive than getting a new jail in the long run. Short term it might hurt, long term it'll hurt much more not having a new jail," said Lieutenant McMurtrie.

Commissioner Beauchamp also added that as of now the county spends nearly 30% of its annual budget solely on jail maintenance, money he believes could be put to better use for the county if residents approve the upcoming jail bond vote this coming May 6th.

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