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Officials: New jail will solve many problems

2/9/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Ed Harbin and Bruce Hertel know virtually every nook and cranny in the Law Enforcement Center.

Combined, they've spent nearly 70 years in the building.

They're both looking forward to the multitude of changes forthcoming when construction begins on what essentially will be a new jail -- resurrected from the gutted cavern on the second floor of the LEC.

By the time the reconstruction is complete a year -- perhaps as much as two years -- after work commences, the jail will have room for 72 inmates.

"As far as I know, this is pretty much done," said Harbin, Ellis County Sheriff, of the architect's design. "The jail floor is pretty much done."

For Harbin and Undersheriff Hertel, the changes represent a huge step forward.

Gone will be the archaic system serving as a safety lapse for jailers, who are unable to see inmates without moving about the jail floor.

The design, absent any last-minute changes, will feature ready-to-install pods that will be lifted up and moved into place, hooked into water, sewer and electricity.

Each of the seven pods will be visible from a centrally placed control center, where jailers will be able to watch the inmates' actions from a safe viewpoint.

Double entry doors will let the jailer move inmates into virtual isolation before they make contact.

Best of all, Harbin said, the bars will be gone -- replaced by a thick pane of glass that will make it impossible for inmates to reach out and grab a jailer or throw things at him.

The cells are much like those in zoo exhibits that allow for maximum viewing and maximum safety. Plus, the glass is designed to limit what inmates can see outside the cell, yet give jailers a clear view inside.

Harbin's also delighted with the idea of a new visitation system that will "go from face-to-face to video."

"Each one of the pods will have a screen," he said. "So we won't have to bring people up on the jail floor."

That long has been considered a significant security risk.

The largest of the pods will hold 20 inmates, but he's not overly worried about that many in a single setting.

"We'll be able to classify them so we can put misdemeanor inmates in there," Harbin said. "That's the way it should be. You don't want a murderer in with someone writing bad checks."

They'll also have pods with cells designed for single inmates, even though they'll have two beds in them just in case. They will be reserved for inmates who don't get along with others.

There's room for work-release inmates and cells for medical isolation and even a padded cell. If that's not enough, there will be a pair of holding cells adjacent to the second floor courtroom in the Ellis County Courthouse. That's going to do away with inmates walking through hallways and up a public elevator.

And there's holding cells and an isolation room on the first floor, tucked into a vastly expanded booking area.

Harbin and Hertel said the latest changes in the plans moved the processing area, which allows for a longer hallway to conduct sobriety checks. There's even an exercise room for inmates, something that's been long gone as the sheriff's office has struggled to make room for inmates.

"I'm not sure what we're going to have," Harbin said. "It may be just an area to walk around in. They won't be able to play basketball. If they wanted to play basketball, they should have stayed out of jail."

Currently, the jail capacity stands at 32 inmates, forcing the sheriff's office to house inmates on a regular basis in Trego, Rooks and Russell counties, when there's room, and in Ford County for longer stays. The average number of inmates being housed by the sheriff's office ranges from 50 to 60 on a daily basis.

It's a task that costs approximately $200,000 a year.

Both Harbin and Hertel hailed the idea of a walkway surrounding the jail pods, allowing maintenance without being forced to go inside the jail.

"This whole floor will be stripped," Hertel said of the area housing the jail.

The project will prompt changes, including the idea of hiring someone to manage the kitchen facilities, perhaps on a per-meal basis.

"If we have 60 people in jail, one person will not be able to do that," Harbin said.

"We're looking into hiring someone to run the food service," Hertel said.

Harbin said it's also likely they'll have to hire three to four new jailers to cover the expanded capacity and the holding cells outside the jail.

That cost could add $160,000 to the sheriff's budget each year. Hertel said the pods, because they are pre-built, will cut down on some headroom.

"They're ready to go," he said. "When they're put in, they're ready to go."

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While there isn't a lot of latitude for growth between a current census of 60 inmates and the 72 cells to be installed, both Harbin and Hertel are happy to have the improvements.

"We'll make it last as long as we can," Harbin said.

The sheriff's office initially suggested the idea of a regional jail, with as many as 150 beds.

That idea was shot down quickly.

Nonetheless, Hertel and Harbin are looking forward to the improvements.

"Basically, we got to a critical situation," Hertel said. "We'll take what we can get."

"We're hoping that we get this," Harbin said. "It's greatly needed. Basically, I'm happy with what we're getting."

But getting more will mean making do with less, at least during the construction phase.

All of the inmates now being held by the sheriff's office, including those in the LEC, will have to be moved elsewhere. That's going to boost housing and transportation costs.

Inmate housing costs average approximately $40 a day, and with anywhere form 45 to 50 inmates needing housing, that could amount to as much as $2,000 a day -- perhaps $730,000 for the year's construction period.

They'll also need a processing center for booking prisoners and a place for attorneys to meet with clients. Harbin said they're looking at the possibility of leasing self-contained jail pods.

There's some money in the budget, but not enough, he said.

Harbin proposed adding nearly $500,000 to the budget for housing costs, but that got cut early on.

Ellis County Administrator Greg Sund, however, thinks much of the costs can be covered by extra income from the sales tax.

He said it will take more than four years to pay for the projects covered by the sales tax, leaving some latitude to use sales tax money to pay for related costs, such as housing inmates or leasing Kennedy Middle School while construction is underway.