• Jail employees man the booking area inside the Stephens County Jail. The jail is currently out of compliance with state jail standards for not making required 15 minute checks for inmates on suicide watch. They are currently following a 30-day plan to try and correct the problem or face possible closure of the jail. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge American)

Stephens County Jail under the gun to meet standards

After a March inspection revealed several problems with Stephens County Jail procedures, the jail remains out of compliance and is currently midway through a 30-day revised operational plan to try and correct the one remaining problem or face possible closure.     

According Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the Stephens County Jail was initially found to be out of compliance on five items. However, since then, all but one of the infractions have been corrected. The jail remains out of compliance on making required 15-minute checks for inmates on suicide watch.

Wood said, although state jail standards only require the checks be made every 30 minutes, Stephens County officials filed an approved operating plan for the jail with the commission that included 15-minute checks instead of 30-minute checks.

He said once a jail administration sets a standard of their own in their approved operating plan, they are required to meet that standard even if it exceeds the requirements of the commission or they will be written up for not meeting that standard.

“While they are to be commended for trying to go above and beyond the normal standard, if they submit a revised (modified) plan, they have to follow it. Or, they will be out of compliance,” Wood said.

During a private meeting between Wood and Stephens County officials on Thursday, July 28, at the Stephens County Law Enforcement Center, Wood agreed to let the county resubmit a modified operational plan that allows them to perform the checks every 30 minutes.

“We told them that if they submitted a revised operational plan and reduced the checks from 15 to 30 minutes that we would approve that, because that’s what minimum standards requires,” Wood said. “They submitted a revised operational plan, we approved it and that is now what they are operating under.”

Stephens County Sheriff Billy Wade said the reason they put 15-minute checks in their original operational plan instead of 30 is because that is the standard recommended by the Texas Association of Counties, the organization that insures the jail.

However, he said, because of jail staff cutbacks and overtime pay cutbacks, it’s been harder to maintain those checks.

Wade said he had to lay off seven jailers by the beginning of this year because of cuts in the 2016 county budget caused by declining tax revenue. That cut left him with a staff of 10 in the jail. Then in June, he replaced one of the jailer positions by eliminating a deputy position and reallocating those funds to hire an additional jailer, bringing the jail staff to its current level of 11.

In the proposed 2017 budget, Stephen County commissioners made allocations for two more jailer positions in the jail budget, which will increase the jail staff to 13.  

Wade said his argument all along has been that with the structure of the Stephens County Jail, the best way to fix it and to have some control over overtime is to have 13 jailers instead of the current 11.

“If you have 13,” Wade said. “You take the jail administrator and you take that chief jailer and they can work their day shifts and perform their duties. And then if somebody on nights gets sick, we still have somebody there. Then, there are no activities at night, and we should be able to make the jail checks.”

He said that way, if somebody takes a vacation or needs personal day, there is somebody to cover the shift, whether it’s on the day or night shift.

“The 13 loosens that up just enough so that if somebody takes off, then James or David can just switch and up cover that evening. I’m not saying that’s eliminating a lot of overtime. Those men still have their regular work to do to,” Wade said.

Will Holt, the Republican candidate for sheriff – who’s running unopposed in the November election and is expected to take over as sheriff in January – said he believes the change from 15-minute checks to 30-minute checks is a good temporary solution to the jail’s noncompliance issue. He said he also feels that adding the two jailers to the current staff and bringing the jail staff to 13 is a good number.

“In an ideal world, 15 minutes is obviously way better than 30 minutes because of the nature of checking on people who are suicidal,” Holt said. “However, the state only mandates that it’s every 30 minutes. So, when we do it every 30 minutes, we’re still in compliance with state minimum standards. I’m OK with that and that helps us temporarily get back into compliance.”

He said once he gets in office he will look at how to trim the mental health and suicidal checks back to 15 minutes and go back to being above the standard and not just meeting the standard.

“So, I’m OK with that for now,” he said. “I’m certainly going to, once I get in there, look and see how we can trim that back down to 15 minutes, if we can. And, of course, that’s depending upon budget, manpower, quality of manpower and a host of other issues." 

Holt said adding the two jailers and increasing the jail staff to 13, and having one assigned as administrator who will spend most of their time on administrative duties, like keeping up with the required paperwork to and from the state of Texas, would leave 12 people who can work in the jail.

“I think that’s a new happy medium where you’re not too low on the numbers and where you’re not throwing too much money or personnel at a problem just to solve it,” he said. “What I mean by that is, from a fiscal standpoint, there is more than one way to solve problems in a government administration. Too many times we just throw money and people at the problem. I don’t think that’s the only way to solve issues. You have to rely on other options and creative avenues and ideas.

"Thirteen in my mind seems to be an ideal happy medium where we don’t have too many people on payroll costing the taxpayers more, but we certainly don’t need too few, which I think is where we’ve been. Which obviously causes a whole host of safety issues for the inmates, safety issues for the officers. Not to mention just trying to run the best jail we can to help decrease the risk inmates come out worse than when they went in,” Holt said.

Wood said there is no set number of jailers required under state jail standards. He said the only requirement is, if a jail has 48 or less inmates in the jail, not beds, but inmates, then they are required to have one jailer on the floor and one in the control room at all times.

However, he said they have to meet all the other duties that are required by the jail standards, like feeding the inmates, laundry, moving the inmates to and from court and recreation.
“They are in non-compliance right now,” Wood said. “We are monitoring their observation logs in order to find out if they able to meet the minimum requirement of 30-minute checks, one on the floor one in the control room, everything else getting done and 60 minutes on all the other inmates.”  

He said due to the fact that they were not conducting the required observation checks, which is one of the issues that gets pushed up to the front, they have a very short time to correct the problem. And they have no choice but to meet the standards.

“They can vacate the facilities; they can lower the number of inmates if that helps them; they can ship all their inmates out; or they can hire more people or they can pay overtime,” he said. “Again, how they meet minimum standards is their choice, but they have to meet minimum standards.”

Wade said he received a letter from the State Jail Standards Commission this week reminding him that in 15 days will be the end of the 30 days of monitoring and there will be a determination made by the commission.

“The letter is just a reminder,” he said.
 

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