Committees, officials discuss jail solutions

Kevin Wilson

A lengthy back-and-forth between citizens and county officials made it evident there are no easy solutions to Curry County’s jail issues. Inexpensive solutions seemed just as rare.

Members of three citizens committees met for nearly three hours Saturday morning at the Clovis-Carver Public Library, with discussions about the challenges the county faces in its detention center and courthouse.

Following November’s electoral defeat of bond measures totaling $33 million for facility upgrades, the county created two committees to make recommendations to the county commission on how to go forward. A third committee was created later, comprised of citizens who quit the first two because meetings weren’t open to the public.

Architect Robert Johnson of Denver-based Reilly Johnson Architecture went over plans put forth to the voters. He said he has had no involvement with the county since presenting a master plan to address security needs through 2025.

The Curry County Adult Detention Center has 208 beds, and county officials estimate $700,000 spent annually for house prisoner overflow in other facilities.

The county houses about 67 prisoners offsite, Jail Administrator Keith Norwood said at the meeting. He cited a combination of space constraints and inadequate facilities to house medium- and maximum-security inmates.

The master plan indicates 680 beds might be needed. Johnson cautioned the increase in bed numbers would happen incrementally, and that number felt enormous despite realistic projections.

“You were growing your inmate population at a rate of 9 or 10 percent a year,” Johnson said. He arrived at the 680 by calculating 5 percent annual growth through 2025, and said, “I think it is still very fair to characterize that as an impossible number.”

A $16.44 million cost model was presented for a first phase of detention center upgrades, which would have added 188 beds between the male, female and juvenile detention centers.

Johnson went over costs, including:

• $7.62 million for a detention center addition

• $1.35 million for remodeling to the current detention center

• $930,000 for site acquisitions of the Hartley House, Zip Printing and Master Trim, located on the block north of the current detention center

• $960,000 for sitework

• $355,000 for miscellaneous costs, including video visiting centers for male and female facilities.

If the county wants to pare down the project, Johnson suggested looking at non-infrastructure costs first. Less expensive buildings are possible, but Johnson equated it to saving a few bucks on a cheap car part and paying a fortune when the car breaks down.

“Architects are only as good as their clients,” Johnson said. “There are two parties (and) there’s a lot of give and take. The question is always ‘how can we build what we can afford without painting ourselves into a corner?’”

Johnson said the current detention center is adequate for low-security prisoners, but is built primarily for them. A new facility would be mostly for higher-security inmates, and he said building away from the current site would sacrifice much of the detention center’s current value.

A survey of prisoners at the CCADC concluded that 68.9 percent of prisoners had at least one felony charge, 10.3 percent were awaiting transport to the state department of corrections and the average length of stay was 196 days.

With some changes in processes, officials said, some stays could be shortened and others eliminated.

Commissioner Bobby Sandoval said part of the problem exists in housing people awaiting trials for non-violent crimes. He attended a National Association of Counties meeting two weeks prior, and took a class on jail overpopulation.

In that class, a scenario was given: An unemployed man with a clean record is recruited by his neighbor; an experienced car thief. The two are arrested on their first job together. Until the trial begins, the county’s on the hook for housing and feeding the unemployed man with a clean record, because he can’t afford the bond.

“The car thief bonded; he never spent a minute in jail,” Sandoval said. “Many of the prisoners might not belong in jail. They’re not a threat to anybody.”

Sandoval said he wanted to take another look at using ankle bracelets for non-violent offenders. He said the bracelet program is only available to people with jobs, so worthy candidates are disqualified if their employer fires them because of the arrest.

Commissioners said judges need to be part of any such program, but have been scared off by reports of offenders cutting their bracelets.

“We have to get the technology to where judges are comfortable with the technology that we have,” Commissioner Wendell Bostwick said.

Doug Reid said he was afraid of deja vu because many of the same fears — including overcrowding and potential lawsuits — were brought forward when county voters approved the current facility in 1991.

“ I happen to know there are two commissioners here who were involved (in pushing for the renovation),” Reid said.

One of those commissioners, Frank Blackburn, is a member of the current commission as well. He said he was proud of the facility, and didn’t want it to be mischaracterized.

“I still have the shovel from when we cut the dirt,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn said the situation included adding beds to unused offices so they could be used as detention cells for female inmates. The current detention center answered many of the county’s challenges, he said, but the county now has different challenges.

Bruce Swingle, a loss prevention manager with the New Mexico Association of Counties, agreed.

“Now, the de facto mental institution is your jail,” Swingle said. “They’re terrorizing other inmates, or they’re being terrorized by other inmates, and it leads to litigation.”

Manuel Romero, a consultant with the New Mexico Association of Counties, also spoke at the meeting. Following the 2008 escape of eight inmates, he authored an assessment that blasted the center’s policies, staffing issues and structural deficiencies.

But he noted Norwood and County Manager Lance Pyle have made improvements where they can, and noted the center received a pair of $10,000 awards for significant reductions in workman’s compensation claims.

“It’s not an easy job,” Romero said. “It’s a difficult, time-consuming job and, sometimes, it’s a thankless job.”

Romero said if structural issues aren’t addressed, pressure increases on county staff, and Johnson said one of the side benefits of a new jail is a reduction in employee turnover.