Officials consider Montgomery County Jail expansion

The Montgomery County Commissioners Court reassembled a dormant committee in September to examine ways to improve the county jail, which lacks adequate space for its growing number of inmates.

The committee is composed of 12 officials, including County Judge Craig Doyal, Sheriff Tommy Gage and District Attorney Brett Ligon, and held its first meeting in September.

The Montgomery County Jail was built in 1987 in Conroe to accommodate 600 inmates. Now, after repurposing existing spaces to add beds, it houses 1,122 inmates in that same 302,000-square-foot facility constructed nearly three decades ago.

“We could potentially do an expansion on the existing jail at a much [lower] cost than building a whole new jail [through] a combination of streamlining processes and looking at future [facility] growth—smart growth, not just building on,” Doyal said.

Jail overcrowding

Last year, the committee hired Austin-based Broaddus Planning and Miami-based CGL Companies to present possible solutions to the jail’s overcrowding woes. The proposal included the construction of an entirely new facility, which came with a $200 million price tag. Doyal said there has to be another way to address the jail’s overcrowding problem.

Jail Administrator Capt. David Moore said he and his team have had to be creative with the existing space in the jail.

“We take storage rooms or a multipurpose room and build it out with bunks,” Moore said. “We’ve doubled our size without building new buildings.”

Moore said he converted storage space to build an alternative infirmary. A new kitchen to accommodate 2,500 inmates was completed this year.

The recent additions are some of the reasons why Doyal said he wants to see a jail expansion rather than build a newer, more expensive facility.

Even though the jail has a maximum capacity of 1,253 beds, not all of the beds can be occupied at once because of inmate classification. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ guidelines require jails to not exceed 90 percent of their capacity, which is 1,125 inmates for Montgomery County.

The jail meets the TCJS population guidelines by entering into mutual agreements with other Greater Houston-area jails, such as those in Walker, Jefferson and San Jacinto counties, Chief Deputy Sheriff Randy McDaniel said. However, the jail was classified as “at-risk” by the commission in 2014 because of its surging population, TCJS Assistant Director Shannon Herklotz said.
“We could potentially do an expansion on the existing jail at a much [lower] cost than building a whole new jail [through] a combination of streamlining processes and looking at future [facility] growth—smart growth, not just building on.”

—Craig Doyal, Montgomery County judge

A citation for overcrowding was never issued to Montgomery County because jail officials were able to correct the issue in a timely manner, according to TCJS.

“We [are able to] send prisoners to other locations, but that costs money,” McDaniel said. “It takes up our time, our efforts and our resources.”

Quicker processing

More than 60 percent of the jail’s inmates are awaiting felony trials. Doyal said the committee is also looking for ways to move inmates through the court system quicker, which would eliminate the immediate need for a new jail.

In September, Doyal announced county officials will begin working with the Texas Department of Public Safety to employ two crime lab analysts to work exclusively on Montgomery County criminal cases. Doyal said processing evidence can take up to six months under the current system, causing inmates to spend more time in the county jail.

“By processing evidence more quickly, cases will be resolved more quickly as well, leading to faster dismissals or plea bargains,” Doyal said in a statement. “This will cut down on defendants waiting to go to trial.”

The county expects the agreement with the DPS will cut down the waiting period to as few as 30 days. The contract will cost the county an estimated $146,500 for the first year but is expected to be covered through funds saved by housing inmates for shorter amounts of time.

Changes have also been made to the court system to improve efficiency, including the addition of another full-time and a part-time felony court judge to increase the county total to four judges, Court Administration Director Nate Jensen said.

Moving forward

As the county continues to grow, it also faces a lack of holding cells for municipalities located farther from the jail in Conroe. In Magnolia, offenders arrested within city limits are taken directly to Conroe, a drive that can take more than an hour each way, Montgomery County Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley said.

“We need something over here—something that’ll keep [Magnolia officers] from having to go all the way to Conroe to book someone and leave one less officer on duty," Riley said. "They can’t make any other calls if they have a prisoner."

Riley said he does not believe city residents will approve of a holding cell constructed near the Precinct 2 office, which is located on Nichols Sawmill Road near two Magnolia ISD schools. However, Riley said he hopes the county will find a more efficient way to deal with the lack of options in the coming years.

“Everybody is concerned and rightfully so,” he said. “I know [jail administrators] do their very best to stay in compliance, but they have to work hard every day to do that.”