It might be approximately 90 days overdue, but as of Monday morning, Ellis County’s new jail facility officially was finished and occupied.
A total of 21 inmates had been booked into the facility by Monday evening, and 18 more are expected to arrive today, said Dean Haselhorst, chairman of the Ellis County Commission. The jail is expected to be fully occupied by Thursday.
“Life is good,” he said. “There were a few small glitches but nothing that couldn’t be worked out.”
Officials expressed relief the new facility finally is finished. Inmates originally were supposed to be living in the jail by early January, but the timeframe kept getting pushed back due to unforeseen issues with the building’s renovation.
The delays did prove costly. Haselhorst said the county had been paying more than $60,000 per month to transfer all of the inmates to other facilities throughout the state.
Renovations to the facility at 105 W. 12th began more than a year ago.
The wait was worth it for longtime Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin. Harbin said he long had hoped for a larger, safer jail facility, but wasn’t sure it ever would become a reality.
“It feels great,” he said. “We’ve waited, and finally it’s here.”
The new jail is significantly larger, with a holding capacity of 72 inmates. The previous facility safely could contain only about 30, Harbin said. Ellis County averages close to 70 inmates at any given time.
It also boasts new features, such as a padded cell for those who might pose a threat to themselves, short-term holding cells and a medical unit that can be used for inmates with health complications.
Safety was a key consideration in designing the new facility. Instead of barred jail cells, the new two-person cells are completely enclosed. This will be much safer for jail staff, Harbin said, noting inmates occasionally would throw items — or even punches — through the spaces between bars.
Additional measures were taken to limit inmates’ contact with civilians. Video visitation systems have been installed in each of the pods, which are made up of several cells and a small dining area.
Visitors will teleconference with inmates from a separate area, never coming face-to-face with them. There is, however, a small private visitation room to use in special circumstances.
“This is a huge personnel safety measure,” Harbin said.
A specially designed, secure hallway runs throughout the entire facility, allowing staff to navigate without coming into direct contact with inmates, and a private door connects the jail directly to the courthouse for hearings.
The entire facility, and even courtrooms, are covered by video surveillance in a central control station, in which an employee also has the ability to control automatic locks.
It’s hoped the new technology will enable jail staff to intervene in potentially volatile situations as soon as possible — and with less risk to themselves.
“Thank goodness it’s here,” Harbin said.