Coming Soon: Tour showcases jail expansion progress

Published on Thursday, 30 January 2014 21:56 - Written by By Adam Russell arussell@tylerpaper.com

Movement is brisk inside the downtown jail construction site. From the skyline to underground, crews are readying for major portions of the project, which include installation of eight, 24 double-occupancy jail cell “pods.”

Construction on the six-story 87,000-square-foot expansion of Smith County’s central jail is nearing the final phases and is on pace for an August completion, officials said.

“It’s really coming together,” County Judge Joel Baker said during a site tour Thursday with the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “It’s amazing how far it’s come, but in the coming months it should move quickly.”

Baker said the downtown project’s completion will not only improve the functionality, safety and security of the jail but also its aesthetic appeal by tying its façade with aspects of surrounding buildings, including the courthouse.

The $35 million, multi-phase, 384-bed jail project will end transfers of inmates to other counties. Commissioner Jeff Warr, who spearheaded the project, said its completion would add efficiencies and increase safety for jailers and inmates.

The addition would bring the jail system’s occupancy level to 1,139 from 755.

Phase 1 of the jail plan will wrap up soon. It includes revamping the jail system’s visitation, laundry and kitchen facilities. Video visitation, the laundry and kitchen facility have moved to the low/medium-risk facility off U.S. Highway 69 and Loop 323.

A small portion of Phase 1 also included inmate/attorney visitation rooms and much of the mechanical infrastructure, including electrical, plumbing, HVAC and internal surveillance and communication wiring.

Phase 1 cost around $3.5 million for the 15,500-square-foot combination video visitation, kitchen and laundry area, for an average of $170 a square foot. Phase 1 is expected to be completed Feb. 18.

The laundry and kitchen facilities, which are functioning now, will support both jail locations. Video visitation units will tie into downtown jail cells, which will reduce inmate movement and related safety concerns.

The downtown jail expansion will adjoin the downtown facility on the corner of Fannin Avenue and Erwin Street. Adding 384 double-occupancy cells would cost $22 million, or $290 per square foot.

It would bring the downtown “high-risk” occupancy to 660. High-risk cells can be occupied by lower security level inmates, but high-risk inmates cannot be housed in lower security locations.

The cells are pre-fabricated and will be craned into the structure, then moved into their permanent place. Each two-story pod will allow one detention officer to control activity of up to 48 prisoners, in what is called a “direct supervision” setting.

Cells open to a dormitory-style living quarter with tables and common areas with the officer controlling movement from a station within the pod.

Phase 2 and 3 also include renovating the downtown jail’s book-in area, which county and state officials have called inadequate and unsafe for jailers and the public. The existing space includes holding cells that can accommodate 30 prisoners, a 10-by-12-foot book-in station, a narrow hallway and benches for suspects.

A 5,400-square-foot intake area would bring the holding capacity to 85 and improve safety for inmates and jailers, Warr said. Warr said the space would add efficiency to the justice process, allowing those arrested for minor crimes to be processed more quickly, reducing prisoner backlogs and crowding.

More than $3.3 million, an average of almost $130 a square foot, would be spent on a visitation area, office and administrative space, a vehicle sally port and an infirmary. Warr said the infirmary would also add efficiencies and reduce costs because inmates could be cared for in-house rather than transported to local hospitals under jailer supervision. About $3.5 million would be spent on a 15,500-square-foot combination video visitation, kitchen and laundry area, for an average of $170 a square foot.

“We’re trying to give (jailers) good tools for the future,” he said. “Hopefully we don’t have to talk about a jail for decades.”

Warr said construction activity within a high security jail has taken amazing coordination

Sheriff Larry Smith said some improvements, such as video visitation and the infirmary, will be important to his staff and the functionality of the jail. He said video visitation would reduce inmate movement and opportunities for contraband to be passed within the jail. It also will create a better environment for visitors, he said.

Smith said people don’t understand the around-the-clock movement of prisoners and wear-and-tear they cause within a jail facility.

The improvements will benefit his staff and the county in all facets, he said.

Smith County has shipped inmates to as many as eight counties to comply with state jail occupancy standards since 2004 at a cost of more than $18 million.

Warr said 99 percent of the project is bid out and that the project is running around $250,000 under budget. The project was financed for 12 years at the lowest interest rate for a similar project than any other in the state, Warr said. He expects savings and rental of inmate beds to other entities to allow the county to expire the bond in a decade.