Comal County Jail project sprints into final phases

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After a roughly five-year journey from voter-approved funding in 2015 to the moving in of inmates in late September, the $76 million Comal County Jail expansion and sheriff’s office renovation project has made major inroads to full completion.

While local officials maintain a jail is not looked at as a source of revenue for a county’s budget, the ongoing completion process of the Comal County Jail is emblematic of the needs of an area with a rapidly growing population. For county officials, the project enables much needed flexibility through added capacity.

County information shows the original jail, built in 1985, did undergo an expansion in 1999, but the expansion only held for so long until local inmates were having to serve their terms in other counties, according to Comal County Jail Administrator Major Bill Jennings.

As the inmate population grew, Jennings said Comal County had to outsource inmates up to 180 miles away in Limestone County, among other counties.

Jennings and other county officials have said one of the major benefits brought about by the jail expansion comes through the extra capacity. Not only does the county not have to outsource its inmates anymore—at its most expensive Jennings said that was costing the county up to $5,000 per day—but now outside entities that include Hays County are looking to house their inmates at the new Comal County facility.

According to county officials, not only will inmates and staff benefit from the expansion, but there is now the potential to negotiate interlocal agreements that could bring in additional revenue to the county. Jennings said this could reverse a lengthy pattern of costly expenditures brought about by the need to outsource inmates, which the county had been doing as recently as September.

“It’s a little too soon to say if we’re going to do the interlocal agreements right now. I know the talk is there. Of course we want to help out our neighboring counties,” Jennings said. “It helps bring some money into the county to put towards debt service or whatever the [county] commissioners deem it necessary for.”

The cost of housing inmates

Jennings said staff moved 276 inmates into the new facility from the old facility on Sept. 23. The following day they moved in the remaining 39 inmates who had been outsourced to Atascosa County due to a lack of capacity in-house.

“So, Sept. 24 we quit paying for out of county inmates,” Jennings said. “We did have a plan for it to last a little longer and do it in phases, but everything went so smooth we just went ahead and were able to get it done. So, we no longer have inmates out of county.”

The addition is on the same property as the original jail, and the old facility will be renovated to house the entire Comal County Sheriff’s Department, Jennings said.

In 2020, Comal County has not had to house as many inmates as it has in the past, but Jennings said at the peak of outsourcing as many as 100 inmates were being sent to other counties through memorandums of understanding, or MOUs.

“We were able to get it down to 40 [inmates] roughly,” he said. “When COVID[-19] hit we had help with judges—being able to get people out of jail, allow bonds and release some nonviolent offenders ... on bonds that were doing OK and could function. We had help from the courts doing that stuff.”

In addition to the fact that some inmates will no longer have to be housed out of county, Jennings said the inmates and staff will also benefit from amenities that include an expanded infirmary, bigger kitchen and a state of the art laundry facility.

Precinct 2 Comal County Commissioner David Haag said jails are a service counties must provide, so there are not likely to be any economic benefits because of the project.

However, he did point out that while the jail is an expenditure factored into Comal County’s budget each year through line items including staff payroll, maintenance and others, there are some fiscal benefits that the new facility’s expanded capacity can bring about in the short term.

Namely, Comal County can now leverage the added capacity—the new facility has 582 beds and as of late October was housing less than 400 inmates—toward agreements with counties experiencing space issues.

“We already have several agencies and entities reaching out to us saying: “We need space. Can you give us some of your extra space?” Haag said. “Because we do have space.”

Haag said nothing is yet set in stone, but as of late October he noted the temporary insourcing of out-of-county inmates could happen as soon as November.

“I just want to make sure Major Jennings and the jail staff are comfortable,” Haag said. “We’re definitely looking at it and we’ll do it as soon as we can.”

A facility designed to grow

The Comal County Jail expansion project has had many complications that have slightly delayed its original completion target of summer 2020. Those included construction hurdles, COVID-19 delays and more than 70 change orders, or changes in construction, one of the most recent of which came in May and cost more than $74,000 for the modification of 72 bathroom privacy shields that would have interfered with the HVAC system.

That modification brought the total of the construction project up to $63.45 million but was paid for through the county’s contingency fund, of which about $908,000 had been used for change orders alone.

The project’s groundbreaking ceremony was held Nov. 29, 2017, and a little under three years later, all of the inmates housed both in the old jail facility, as well as those who have been outsourced to other counties, were moved into the new facility.

Right now, the new facility has a maximum capacity of 582, but Jennings and Haag both repeatedly pointed out it was built to expand through what they describe as a pod system.

With all of its infrastructure that includes accommodations for booking, the infirmary, and the kitchen and laundry, Jennings said the facility can expand to house anywhere from 900-1,100 inmates. Jennings said that gives the facility the capacity to add more beds without affecting its infrastructure.

There are currently four pods in Comal County’s new facility, each taking up one acre. Jennings said there is room to add two more pods to the back of the facility, and the cost would include construction and the hiring on new staff.For counties that are building a new jail

or expanding upon an existing facility, accounting for growth is something the Texas Commission on Jail Standards emphasizes and strongly encourages, according to Brandon Wood, executive director of TCJS.

As one example, Wood said counties needing jail facility upgrades might make a 20-year plan for all of the support services it will need, and within that plan would be a consideration to construct another pod onto the existing facility at the 15-year mark to house an additional 150 inmates.

The TCJS recommends that counties plan their facility so they don’t have to add anything for 20 years, and Wood said that now many jails are being designed so they can double in capacity.

“We placed a lot of emphasis on making sure counties do plan for future expansions,” Wood said. “That often entails ensuring that the support services and administrative logistical functions necessary to operate a jail are built in the beginning so that you are able to simply add additional beds in the future and not have to go through and completely redesign the jail.”

A similar project in Hays County

Haag said one of the counties that has recently reached out to Comal County for an MOU to temporarily house its inmates is Hays County, its next-door neighbor to the north.

Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler said they have been dealing with crowded conditions off and on at the county jail for two decades.

A year after Comal County voters approved their $76 million bond package for jail expansion and sheriff’s office renovation, Hays County voters approved a similar package in 2016.

Information from Hays County shows the public safety bond program cost $106.4 million.

A little more than $60 million of that is for the jail expansion, according to county information, which adds 121,600 square feet of space that will allow for 192 inmate beds, 24 segregation cell beds, 22 infirmary beds and 44 youth offender beds to the facility.

Just like in Comal County, Cutler said the Hays County facility upgrade, which he anticipates to be complete for inmates and staff by spring 2021, has been designed with expansion in mind.

The architect firm designed the project so that as county continues to grow, along with its inmate population, two more pods can be added to the existing expansion, Cutler said.

He added the Hay County facility’s new common areas can accommodate between 1,000-1,200 inmates when the jail is fully built out.

“We are prepared for 2030, 2035 for population growth,” Cutler said. “Remember, the key is the common areas. All of that is structured and in place for max capacity. So all we would need to add is the housing.”

By Brian Rash
Brian has been a reporter and editor since 2012. He wrote about the music scene in Dallas-Fort Worth before becoming managing editor for the Graham Leader in Graham, Texas, in 2013. He relocated to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to work for Gatehouse Media's large design hub. He became the editor for the Lake Travis-Westlake publication of Community Impact in August 2018. From there he became a dual-market editor for Community Impact's New Braunfels and San Marcos-Buda-Kyle editions. Brian is now a senior editor for the company's flagship papers, the Round Rock and Pflugerville-Hutto editions.