Growing inmate population spurs need for larger jail facility

News Reporter

Growing pains caused by a rising inmate population in an aging facility have spurred local officials to consider closing the county jail after 26 years of operation in favor of an updated space.

The Hays County Law Enforcement Center is the only jail in the county. It houses offenders from the cities and unincorporated areas of the county, as well as those  detained by the University Police Department. The maximum capacity of the jail is 362 inmates but is considered “full” at 311 based on a recommendation that says 10 percent of the facility’s beds should be kept open at all times. The jail’s population peaked at 328 inmates during the week of March 24, said  Sgt. Mark Cumberland at the April 1 commissioners court meeting.

The rapidly increasing population of Hays County has contributed to the high number of inmates and is cited as a major reason for the possible construction of a new jail. According to a report issued last week from the U.S. Census Bureau, Hays County is the 10th fastest-growing county in the nation amongst those with a population of at least 10,000 people.

The jail houses an average of 8,000 inmates per year, said Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards predicts Hays County will need to almost double the number of beds in the facility to accommodate the influx of inmates.

“They said by 2020 we’ll need roughly 600 beds,” Cutler said. “By 2030 or 2035 they’ll need as many as 1,000.”

Commissioner Will Conley, Precinct 3, said Hays County first began approaching maximum jail capacity about five years ago.

“(When we first began reaching capacity) we started to reform many ways in which our justice system works in order to create more efficiency and to make sure that we were getting our highest and best use out of our jail facility,” Conley said.

Officials implemented strategies to reduce the jail’s population by adding more work programs for inmates and “cite and release” options for Class B misdemeanor offenses such as possession of marijuana. These initiatives have helped lower the number of inmates, Conley said. Despite this, the population has still continued to increase and approach maximum capacity.

Discussions for the construction of a new facility have been fueled by the age of the jail, officials say.

“We take care of the jail, we keep it clean, we keep it running and in good shape, but it’s wearing out,” Cutler said. “The wear and tear is not from abuse, it’s from use.”

Much of the technology in the jail is out of date and no longer manufactured, Conley said. He said adding new technology could help the facility run more efficiently and safely.

“When you consider that this is a 24-hour, seven -day-a-week operation, that’s a lot of wear and tear on a facility, particularly from a technological standpoint,” Conley said.

Conley said county officials do not yet have cost estimates for the proposed jail facility, and Hays County voters should weigh in on the matter. The new facility could be financed through a general obligation bond placed on the ballot through a referendum, he said.

The City of San Marcos would not be asked to contribute funding for the construction of a new jail facility directly, Conley said.