Facing what seems to be a no-win situation with no easy solution in sight, county officials once again are scrambling to find help dealing with the chronic problem of overcrowding at the Coryell County Jail.
The issue has been aggravated by the fact that a source of relief in previous years — sending inmates to other counties when overcrowding occurs — is sometimes no longer possible.
Sheriff Scott Williams told the Coryell County Commissioners Court on Tuesday (May 10) that he had received a letter from the Texas Attorney General's Office threatening action if overcrowding problems aren't fixed. The problem is there is no apparent quick fix to resolve overcrowding.
In April 2021, local voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to spend $30 million to build a new jail, with about 73% voting against the measure. That left officials with little option other than finding another jail willing to house them or simply turning inmates loose.
Sheriff Williams and County Judge Roger Miller are both scheduled to visit Austin and go before the Texas Jail Standards Commission on May 19. They indicated that in order for the visit to be fruitful, they want help and suggestions to find solutions rather than finger-pointing and criticism.
"The statutes quoted (regarding jail standards in the recent letter) were pretty broad with nothing specific," Williams said. "There are a lot of jail beds in the state of Texas, but you can't send inmates there because there aren't enough people willing to work (at those facilities).
"Last year, Milam County took 60 of our inmates, and now they're only able to take 10 — eight males and two females. I don't see it getting better, and (the lack of ability to find places that will accept inmates from Coryell County) is causing our overcrowding. I don't see it getting better, and we can't stop enforcing the law.
"I just don't know what we're going to do."
He noted this is an issue that is a nationwide concern, not just one facing Coryell County. He said the Coryell County Jail is already short 11 jailers, and three more are expected to leave at the end of the month to take higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
The demand for jailers — coupled with a short supply — is causing something of a bidding war.
"McLennan County is hiring new jailers for their juvenile facility for $40,000 and all that is required is a GED (general equivalency diploma) or a high school degree," County Attorney Brandon Belt said. "No certification is required (beforehand), and they'll train you on the job.
"There's also so much more regulation, it's really crippled us as far as being able to use beds."
Not having enough jailers compounds the problem, and there is a lack of quality applicants to fill positions.
"I'm embarrassed to say this, but one application we got was from a stripper in Killeen, and we're getting folks applying who have a criminal history," Williams said. "We're facing another issue where not enough people want to work, and I don't know how we're going to get through that."
Belt said in previous instances, state officials made calls to different counties to get Coryell County help resolving overcrowding issues.
"We need help or they'll have to find a place for all the inmates if they close us down (for overcrowding)," he said. "We ought to be on the line every day asking who do you know who will take (inmates)."
"We already do that," Williams said. "We can't stop enforcing the law. There are surplus beds in other jails, it's just there's not enough staff working to allow us to fill them."
"We need help finding some place to take (inmates) — we need answers," Belt said.
County Auditor Ben Roberts said state officials have to be aware of the lack of available space.
"I can't believe these people don't know there's no jail in the state that can provide help," he said.
"Travis County is in the same boat we are with shortages in the sheriff's office and their jail," Belt said.
Williams said part of the frustration is being hit with blame and criticism when no solution is readily available.
"This is all about them getting their i's dotted and their t's crossed, and unfortunately that's the system," he said.
County Judge Miller echoed Roberts' sentiments.
"Mr. Roberts hit the nail on the head," he said. "Having an adequate workforce for jail facilities whether city, county, state or federal is a problem nationwide. An increase in pay would help some, but I also think there is a lack of work ethic in our society in general."
Williams said additional money will only solve part of the problem.
"Unfortunately, the only thing more money will do is help you keep the racehorses you've got — that's not hiring others.
Belt said state facilities face the same overcrowding issues and expressed frustration that people with mental health issues have to wait a year in jail until a spot opens in a state hospital for them.
"That makes me mad," he said.
"It's a broken system," Williams added. "We can't find the 15 beds we need in order to be in compliance. What will they do with an extra 100 (inmates) if they shut us down?"
Miller said the issue is one that is all too common.
"This is not unique to Coryell County, there are violations across the state," he said. "In a perfect world, the state takes care of it and the county doesn't have to deal with it."
Williams said he wanted to keep the commissioners court aware of the situation.
"I wanted to make sure the court was aware of what's going on," he said. "They talked about tent cities (to help provide more space). Those folks that are eligible for tent cities are the ones we let out. I've got rapists, murderers and just straight killers in my jail."
Miller said the county will continue to seek state assistance on resolving the chronic concern.
"We'll work to see what kind of help we can get from the state from the state jail system other than just finger pointing," he said.