Thursday, August 14, 2008

Judge Updates Tyler Jail Vote History

Today the Smith County Commissioners Court is scheduled to set yet another jail bond vote for the November election, making the third such request to the voters in just three years. The last two proposals failed ignominiously at the ballot box, but commissioners hope a scaled down version billed as "Phase One" will pass muster, even though $125 million school bonds will appear on the same ballot.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to lose jail bond votes by such wide margins then put the thing back on the ballot. With Lorrie Morgan, local jail opponents wonder "What part of 'No' don't you understand?" Much of the disapprobation stems from opposition to rising local tax and fee burdens, combined with a continuing backlash against commissioners for voting to raise their own salaries. The county projects the new jail will boost property taxes more than 8% just to pay for the building, not including staffing costs and expenses from housing prisoners.

I received an email this week from Tyler District Judge Cynthia Kent who graciously responded from her vacation - at her oldest son's wedding, in fact - so I appreciated her taking time out to contact me. She'll have more to say on the subject of the jail, she declared, upon returning from her holiday, but in the meantime sent along the following historical timeline regarding Smith County's jail. The first part was published last year in the Tyler Morning Telegraph, and the last portion the Judge herself added, updating the timeline all the way to the setting of today's hearing.
Oct. 1855: The Smith County grand jury finds “spiritous liquors are kept and sold by a good many citizens” and recommends building a jail.

Aug.1856: Commissioners plan for jail that “shall contain two prison rooms and a suitable apartment for the jailer” not to exceed $8,000.

Feb. 1880: Because of overcrowding, the county stops accepting Tyler’s prisoners.

June 1880: A company is hired to build a jail on East Erwin for $11,239.

July 1881: Commissioners order the sheriff to repair “the hole in the wall of the new jail made by the escaping prisoners.”

Feb. 1915: The grand jury cites unsafe and unsanitary jail conditions.

July 1915: Commissioners accept a bid to build a new jail on Spring Avenue for $45,000. This jail serves needs for nearly 40 years.

Feb. 1954: Work begins on a courthouse on the square which will have jail space on the top two floors.

1973: Plans to add a seventh floor to the courthouse for more jail space is rejected.

1977: Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) cites the jail for non-compliance.

1979: Plan for a courthouse annex that includes jail space is abandoned.

May 1981: After a class action suit is filed on behalf of inmates, U.S. District Judge William Steger takes over supervision of the jail.

June 1982: Voters reject an $11.5 million jail plan.

July 1982: Steger appoints a jail task force and tells them that “since the people have spoken by their vote, it therefore is incumbent upon the Court to take action to seek a solution.”

Jan. 1983: Voters approve an $11 million plan to build a 264-bed jail on Elm Street, projected to meet needs for 20 years.

Sept. 1985: On the day the jail opens, it is full. Within two years, it is in trouble for overcrowding.

June 1988: Commissioners accept a $1.33 million bid to build a 246-bed minimum security jail just north of Tyler.

July 1989: Commissioners enter a 15-year agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service to house up to 50 federal prisoners in return for $100,000 in federal funds for jail improvements.

1994: A 192-bed medium security expansion at a site north of Tyler is opposed by some residents who unsuccessfully sue to block it.

Sept. 1997: Steger ends his supervision, saying the jail meets standards.

Jan. 2002: The jail is again cited for jail overcrowding.

Nov. 2002: At the Smith County Jail Committee’s first meeting, Sheriff J.B. Smith warns that TCJS could force prisoners be sent to other counties.

Nov. 2002: Jail Committee recommends a $40 million, 1,500-bed criminal justice complex be built north of downtown. No action is taken.

Nov. 2003: With inmate population 100 over capacity, TCJS warns the county to take immediate steps to alleviate overcrowding.

December 2003: The jail fails another inspection due to overcrowding.

May 2004: After TCJS mandate, the county starts sending inmates to Bowie County, at a cost of $40 per day, per prisoner. The cost is estimated to be upward of $1 million per year.

May 2004: A new Jail Committee recommends an $85 million, 1,464-bed criminal justice complex be built. Commissioners say that could lead to as much as a 40 percent tax rate hike and look into privatization.

June 2004: Commissioners hire a consultant who says the county could save money by letting a private firm build and run a jail.

March 2005: The Jail Committee reviews proposals from private firms who want to build the jail, but also examine the traditional design-bid-build route.

April 3, 2005: Commissioner Don Pinkerton dies in his sleep the night before he is to propose building a new jail in the traditional manner, to be run by the county. The price tag was to be between $50 and $60 million for a 912-bed facility.

May 2005: Regrouping with a new member of the court, commissioners turn back to the privatization option.

July 6, 2005: Commissioners vote to hire the private firm Corplan to begin the design phase for a $53.8 million “criminal justice center,” to include a jail.

July 12, 2005: Upon learning of legal trouble Corplan has in Willacy County, involving bribes to county officials, Smith County commissioners reject Corplan’s proposal and start over with a new Request for Proposals.

Oct. 2005: Citizens concerned that commissioners planned to move the jail outside of downtown form the Master Plan Resource Committee to demonstrate the viability of a downtown location. Local experts in real estate, development, design and land use volunteer their time to develop two options for commissioners to consider. When Option South and Option East are presented in court, commissioners respond with a polite “thank you” and no questions.

Nov. 2005: A new round of RFPs results in commissioners tapping Lee Lewis Construction and Wiginton Hooker Jeffrey Architects to build a new jail.

Jan. 4, 2006: Commissioners pick a remote site, near the northeast corner of Loop 323, for the new jail.

Jan. 23, 2006: Faced with public opposition to the remote site and a very vocal call for a downtown jail, commissioners agree to examine a “downtown option” as well.

Feb. 2006: The private firms designing and pricing the remote and downtown facilities report back with price tags of $73.4 million and $90.9 million, respectively. The downtown price is eventually scaled back to $83 million.

March 2006: Commissioners opt to put both facilities on the May 13 ballot — each proposition will require a majority of “yes” votes to pass. Commissioners begin a series of sparsely attended public hearings.

April 2006: The No No Committee forms to oppose both jail bond proposals; members cite a lack of trust in commissioners and the lack of a master facilities plan.

May 13, 2006: Voters soundly defeat both jail propositions; the downtown jail failed 36.56 percent to 63.44 percent, while the remote jail failed 13.58 percent to 86.42 percent. Even though the “yes” votes were split between two options, more people voted against any new jail (6,378) than for a new jail (5,413).

June 2006: Commissioners put together a new, broader jail committee — including members of “No No” — to try to get the jail expansion efforts back on track. Meetings break down, and by the end of the month the group is disbanded.

July 2006: A new, smaller committee is formed, though critics refer to it as County Judge Becky Dempsey’s “Yes Ma’am Committee.” It meets throughout the summer to hammer out details for a new jail bond package. Incoming County Judge Joel Baker declines to serve on the committee.

Nov. 2006: The new committee, formally dubbed the Smith County Buildings Task Force, recommends that a jail plan be developed in conjunction with a master facilities plan, and that the firm Carter Goble Lee be picked to develop both. Commissioners agree, and the county begins negotiations with CGL on the price and scope of the work.

Feb. 2007: Judge Baker, now on the court along with new Commissioner Bill McGinnis, agrees that negotiations with CGL should continue, and that a May bond election is not a realistic goal.

Sources: Tyler Paper, The Chronicles of Smith County, Smith County Historical Society, local attorney Randy Gilbert. Reporter Kenneth Dean covers police, fire, public safety organizations and Roy Maynard covers county government and politics for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. They can be reached at

Tyler District Judge Cynthia Kent adds these updates to the timeline:

November 2007 - Jail Bond proposal on ballot for a $125 million jail and court support building - Proposal fails by 68% of the vote

Spring 2008 - Judge Joel Baker, Commissioner Jo Ann Fleming, State Senator Kevin Eltiffe, and private businessman Ben Curtis meet together privately without posting any public meeting notices and put together a $59.6 million proposal jail bond plan for building an additional 694 jail beds in Smith County.

August 2008 - Judge Joel Baker and Commissioner Fleming go public with the formulated plan after Mr. Ken Good files an open records request for any materials submitted to Texas Jail Standards Commission for approval of a new proposed jail in Smith County.

August 2008 - Judge Joel Baker and Commissioner Fleming hold several hastily called private and public meetings (without posting any open meeting agenda notices) to present what Commissioner Fleming called "Phase One of the Commissioner's Jail Plan" to be put on the ballot in November 2008, calling it a "Bare Bones Jail."

August 10, 2008 Judge Baker issues a public notice that on Thursday, August 14, 2008 the Smith County Commissioners will hold a meeting to vote on calling a November 2008 Jail Bond Election.
A couple of items here jumped out at me, particularly the prohibitionist origins of Smith County's first jail. To this day Smith is a dry county - you must drive about 30 miles from Tyler to either Kilgore or Coffee City to get to the nearest liquor store - so it's pretty interesting to learn that the very first Tyler jail was built because officials learned that "“spiritous liquors [were] kept and sold by a good many citizens."

Equally interesting to me, though William Wayne Justice was the Tyler-based federal judge best known for overseeing Texas' state prison litigation in the infamous Ruiz case, it was the late Judge William Steger, the first modern GOP gubernatorial candidate in Texas and a conservative stalwart, who similarly supervised the Smith County Jail via court order for 16 years (1981-'97) following a class action lawsuit by inmates.

History teaches us, said Hegel, that man learns nothing from history. In 1983, Smith County voters approved a new jail that officials said would meet the county's needs for 20 years, but it was full on the day it opened two years later. Judge Kent predicts the same thing will happen if Smith County builds another jail now and urged commissioners to learn from that experience, proposing instead a long list of alternatives to reduce jail overcrowding. But that good advice apparently won't stop the commissioners court from plowing forward, irregardless of history or voters' clearly expressed preferences in the last two jail elections.


Anonymous said...

It appears to me that the basic problem is that Smith County has too many law enforcement people at work there and that they are just too damned good at what they do.

Anonymous said...

Either that or Smith County is a hotbed of criminal activity.

Anonymous said...

Keep the AIC alternative incarceration center program going! Thank you jude KENT! this has worked for so many ppl. And no we are not a hotbed for criminal activity. Our jail is filled with people that have child sup. issues, and drug problems. Kent wants to help these people not throw them away!

Anonymous said...

Smith county is not a hotbed for criminals. The AIC program dose work yes, but smith county is so far from geting a new jail . The over crowding is from people acting niggardly and doing the same stuff. And The ones in there for Child support are not learing a lesson." They can keep me in here i am not paying shit" he needs to go to jail if someone has had more than 1 child taken for a selfish or abusive should be punished but they are not.