Waller County leaders say outdated, crowded jail could close if $39.5 million bond fails

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Now until next Tuesday, Waller County voters are facing a $39.5 million bond proposal to build a new law enforcement center. The move would fund a new county jail so that the existing crowded and dilapidated facility can be demolished.

Waller County’s 30-year-old jail in Hempstead is designed for a capacity of 110 people, and on Oct. 26, Major Larry Cook of the sheriff’s office said the facility had 100 inmates. Officials said continued population growth is expected to exacerbate overcrowding.

The county has struggled to keep up with maintenance requirements in part because its design is outdated, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Now the building is in poor condition and has staff concerned about inmate and employee safety.

“They’ve always made it clear to us that we—as long as we have forward momentum, … then they would be lenient towards shutting down us,” County Judge Trey Duhon said.

The bond would fund construction of a 200-bed jail, sheriff’s department offices and an on-site criminal courtroom—all designed for potential future expansion. It would cost an estimated $2.7 million annually for 20 years in debt payment.

If the bond fails, county officials said the state could close the jail and inmates would have to be sent to other county jails with money from the general fund—an estimated $2.4 million to $3.8 million annually, depending on how many inmates Waller has.

“These numbers, in my opinion, are low,” County Construction Manager Danny Rothe said.

According to the center's designs, which Rothe said are still in development, a new law enforcement center would encompass more than 91,000 square feet located at the northeast intersection of Hwy. 290 and Grace Road in Hempstead. If the bond is approved, construction would break ground in June and would finish in March or April of 2020.

Culture change needed, expected
The commission deemed the Waller County Jail noncompliant on March 21, but facility has also been cited at least in 2016, 2014 and 2012, according to reports found online.

Sheriff Glenn Smith said that in about the last five months, nearly 75 percent of jail staff has turned over in an attempt to change the workplace culture and personnel issues that led to the citations. The jail’s observation practices and mental health training of staff were scrutinized after the 2015 death of inmate Sandra Bland, and, as a result, last year her family settled with the county and Texas Department of Public Safety for $1.9 million, according to Community Impact Newspaper partner the Texas Tribune.

But Smith said the state sees hope for change, as was described in a letter from Brandon Wood, executive director of the commission, to Duhon after officials appeared before the commission May 4.

“Based upon the testimony presented, I am encouraged of the county’s recruitment of a new jail administrator and believe that the anticipated change in culture will go a long way in addressing the management issues,” Wood said in the letter. “I was further encouraged by the fact the county appears to finally be moving forward with replacing the existing Waller County Jail … the linear design itself was becoming obsolete when the jail was constructed.”


Early voting ends Nov. 3 and Election Day is Nov. 7. For a list of Katy-area polling places check out the Local Election Guide. For a full list of Waller County polling places and other voting information, go the county’s elections website.


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