New jail could benefit county

Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson stand inside the county jail.

Brewster County’s jail is ready to burst, but the prisoners just keep on coming.

Sheriff Ronny Dodson last week told the Avalanche his office has been approached about a new jail in the county several times by the U.S. Marshals Service because of the influx of federal cases in Brewster and Pecos counties.

Since the federal magistrate court is in Alpine, all federal prisoners from the area go through that court here. At one point they are brought to the jail, and held until magistration, at which time they’re turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service. Then the marshals are responsible for the prisoners financially.

The county currently contracts with U.S. Marshals to hold its prisoners behind bars at $65 a day.

Said Dodson, “The thought is they would reach out to private facilities to build something. That would take away the bed space we’re using for them.”

Though he did acknowledge a private facility would add property taxes to the county’s coffer and create jobs, Dodson said the county would gain nothing from the revenue generated by housing federal prisoners.

Brewster could also farm out beds to other counties because they’re facing space problems as well.

“We’ve been called by Pecos, Midland, and Ector counties,” said Dodson, “But they’re looking at building new facilities, too. We’re not the only one facing jail problems.”

With 54 beds now, Dodson noted that if a 96-bed jail were built, the county wouldn’t need to add any employees. According to state jail standards, more than 96 beds would require additional employees, nurses, and more to meet the minimum.

Built in 1994 and opened in 1995, and repaired and patched to the hilt, an expansion isn’t practical or desirable. And standards set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards are getting tougher, along with liability lawsuits.

Dodson isn’t looking for a bond to finance a new jail. Rather, he has his eyes on a loan to be paid off with revenue made by housing U.S. Marshals prisoners. 

“We’re looking to get a low interest loan with the USDA or some other places,” Dodson said. “We do over $800,000 a year at the jail with federal prisoners, and if we doubled that and got it to $1.6 million, that would make the payments on the jail instead of taxpayers buying it themselves.”

Dodson had no estimate of what a new jail might cost, but did say it would have to be put out for bids. When the county talked to contractors several years ago, $60,000 per bed was a number that came up.

He stressed that costs would only be higher in the future, saying, “Whether we do it now or in five years, it has to happen. This jail is getting to the point where things are falling apart.”

Dodson envisioned a place north of town near the federal building that would house the jail, the sheriff’s office, the justice of the peace office, impound lots, parking, and more, all away from downtown.

“But there’s no site in mind right now. No one has done anything yet,” he said.

The judge and commissioners control the county’s finances and would ultimately make all the final decisions. Before any decisions could be made, there would be an agenda item open for public comment during commissioners court, then commissioners would vote to go forward or not. Commissioners, the sheriff, and jail standards would all be involved with the final product.

As far as housing local prisoners, Dodson said they’re generally not held very long.

“If we should get too many, then we limit federal beds because we take care of our state prisoners first,” he said.

“Right now we’re just looking into it, and I’m very much against raising taxes. But if we could get a loan and get a facility we can work with and with the marshals, it could benefit everyone,” said Dodson.

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