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Has the Nueces County Jail served its time?

Nueces County Jail
Posted at 11:00 PM, Feb 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 00:01:55-05

Officials most familiar with the Nueces County Jail say the building is falling apart.

Nueces County Sheriff J.C. Hooper knew the county jail had issues when he was appointed sheriff in 2018 -- he just didn't know the extent.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” he recently said. “My interaction with this building pretty much stopped when I dropped a prisoner off at the booking desk.”

That knowledge came from Hooper's 35 years with the Corpus Christi Police Department, but being the county sheriff opened his eyes.

“It's old, it's crumbling, and it's being held together by Band-Aids,” he said.

Built in 1976, signs of age exist alongside newer technology which has been packed in wherever there's room. Ceilings leak, and, one floor underground, an aging electric unit sits mere feet from water and sewage pipes.

“You look at the potential for failure inside a crumbling building and it can be a little scary,” Hooper said.

The jail staff does what it can to maintain the 45-year-old building, but the building's occupants add to its stress. “There is definitely a concentration of violent offenders in the county jail system today, more so than ever before,” Hooper said.

As of Feb. 1, Nueces County had 1,050 inmates booked into its two facilities, around 600 of them at the main jail and the rest at the McKenzie Annex. Most are accused of violent felonies, including 69 inmates charged with murder. They spend most of their time alone in their cells. “They've got a lot of time on their hands,” he said.

In one cell, an inmate broke a light fixture and used the metal to dig out the call box in the wall. Until it's fixed, two cells are out of commission.

“Usually the plumbing is a target, the wiring is a target, the light fixtures are targets,” he said. “There's only so much you can do to discourage that type of destruction.” Hooper said for those inmates, revoking privileges or adding misdemeanors to their charges isn't a deterrent, and it's a problem across Texas.

“Some counties are small, some counties are very large, but we're all struggling with the same challenges,” he said.

For an accurate comparison, we looked at counties between populations 300 and 400: Brazoria, Bell, Galveston and Lubbock. All four have built jails since 1995. Jeff Buuck has been Bell County's chief deputy since 2020. He saw issues in his jail immediately.

“It's a complex issue to build a jail, and it was something I had to dive into right when I got here,” he said.

In 2009, Bell County built a 658-bed facility to go with its existing 526-bed jail.

“Everybody recognizes that a jail is a fundamental resource and infrastructure needed in a community,” Buuck said.

Last year, Bell County commissioners approved expanding that facility by more than 700 beds. “We really took a team effort in addressing this problem and we decided we were going to need a significant jail build,” he said.

Why did Bell County expand so quickly? For one of the same reasons Nueces County needs to: a lack of space. Nueces County's 1,050 inmates are the most it can handle according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. “I've been inspected three times,” Hooper said. “This last time I was found to be non-compliant.”

Hooper said that failed inspection was due to overcrowding. It led to Nueces County sending some of its prisoners to other counties. “There's money to be made in housing other people's prisoners,” he said. Nueces County pays Victoria County $60 a day, and Aransas County $74 a day, per inmate. Nueces County currently has 15 prisoners in the Victoria County Jail, and two more in Aransas County, at a price tag of about $80,000 a month. Since July, Nueces County has paid out more than $300,000. “We're in a situation now where there needs to be significant rebuild or a new build,” Hooper said.

Nueces County Pct. 4 Commissioner Brent Chesney knows there are issues with the jail.

“We've got to deal with it,” he said.

He's just not sure voters will want to pay for a new one. “It's a necessity in a community, but it's not like a road or a bridge or something that people use every day,” he said. “It's something that's used for deterrent.”

So how much could a new Nueces County Jail cost? “I would not be at all surprised for a new jail facility to cost $300 (million)-400 million,” Hooper said.

That price, he estimates, would be for a brand new 3,000 bed facility, but it comes with sticker shock. “I want to see if there's not a way to upgrade what we have and spend a lot less than that,” he said.

Upgrading the current jail has its advantages, but adding beds would keep the jail compliant with TCJS. So where do we go from here? “First step is really, I think, is to get some sort of professional assessment from somebody who's not going to get the work,” Chesney said.

County commissioners currently are working to find that firm, he said. And if the recommendation is building a new jail? “I think it'll be a tough sell,” Chesney said. “I really do.”

He said the only way to fund a new build would be by proposing a bond issue. “There's no way we could do something with that kind of number without going to the voters and telling them this is going to be a huge tax increase,” he said.

And if the commissioners and voters say the price tag is too steep, Hooper said he'll accept that.