That jumble of construction debris is beginning to look a bit like a jail, but the double bunks secured to the wall and stainless steel unibody toilet and sinks make the connection easier.
But it’s not looking much like what was initially envisioned, and it’s certainly not going to cure the issue of not enough space. That much was evident at the outset when jail population numbers quickly exceeded the 72-inmate capacity of the new jail.
The numbers have only gotten higher in recent weeks, typically on weekends when rowdy behavior reaches its peak. Recently, inmate numbers hit a high of 84, and have consistently stayed in excess of the 72-bed capacity of the new jail.
As a result, there’s little doubt out-of-county jail costs will continue unabated into the foreseeable future, although at a reduced level.
How much lower isn’t known.
In the meantime, Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin and Undersheriff Bruce Hertel — who both urged county leaders to consider the idea of a new standalone facility — anxiously await the completion of the jail.
They’re both curious to see how it turns out once everything is done, while also concerned about its shortcomings, of which there are many.
To compensate for some of those shortcomings, changes — that mean extra cost — have been pursued.
Foremost among the recent chages are security cameras in most of the jail cells.
That problem falls to one of the biggest changes in the construction project.
Initially, the plan had been to purchase pre-assembled jail pods that would have essentially been lifted up and slid into place.
The existing structure wouldn’t allow that, so contractors had to embark on a program to build individual cells. But rather than offering a panoramic view of the housing pods, doors and smaller security glass are being used. Individual cells will have security doors.
“We can’t see in some of the cells the way we thought we could,” Harbin said.
Harbin said the hope is to install video cameras into the cells so unobstructed views will be possible. How much that will cost remains uncertain as they’re still seeking bids.
What’s perhaps the most troubling aspect for Harbin and Hertel is the jail’s limited capacity, set at 72, something they’ve voiced concerns about before construction even started.
In addition to standard cells on the second floor of the Law Enforcement Center, there’s going to be holding cells on the main floor. That’s where people arrested will first be housed before going upstairs.
There’s also a number of holding cells adjacent to where remodeled courtrooms are located. Those cells, however, can only be used for inmates preparing to appear in court.
Soon after jail operations moved out of the LEC, the inmate roster was already in excess of capacity.
Two weeks ago, the inmate numbers hit 84 and last weekend the numbers reached 81 — nine more than the new jail will be capable of holding.
Harbin, however, has repeatedly said the jail might not even be able to hold its maximum number, depending on the makeup of the inmates.
If there are 10 female inmates, for example, they likely will be housed out of county because each pod can hold 20 inmates.
The 20-inmate pods include the two-bunk cells and day rooms for the inmates to move around, Harbin said.
“They’ll be locked down at night,” he said of the cells. “They’ll be closed.”
Four additional jailers will be added to the existing staff, primarily because of the holding cells on the main floor of the jail.
“That will bring us up to 15 jail staff,” Harbin said.
At least one jailer will be in the control room on the second floor of the jail and won’t leave the room even if trouble breaks out.
That means he’ll have to call for additional help before the other jailer is able to enter the pod and quell any disturbance.
He’s not sure yet if four new jailers will be enough extra staff, considering inmates could be situated in four separate locations.
The sheriff’s office currently has 16 deputies on the road, in addition to three investigators, a canine officer and eight part-time inmate transfer people.
The jail transfers are an especially big part of the sheriff’s office operation now, with as many as three vehicles on the road at any given time.
The biggest share of Ellis County’s inmates are being housed in the Ford County Jail in Dodge City, requiring advance notice to retrieve them in time for court.
From December, when the jail moved out, through May, Ellis County had paid $412,755 to house inmates.
Ford County has received more than half that amount. Trego County has been paid nearly $100,000 to house Ellis County inmates.
The sheriff’s office budget is covering the cost of housing 30 inmates — essentially the number it was housing out of county when the jail was operational.
The rest of the cost is being covered from money being collected by the half-cent sales tax.
Housing inmates out of county will continue even after the jail is done, Harbin said.
“We’re going to try to keep from it, but I won’t say it won’t happen,” he said. “It will happen.”