Walker County, Texas Begins Preliminary Planning for New Jail

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Walker County’s Commissioner’s Court took preliminary steps toward repairing or replacing its jail in mid-February after receiving a feasibility study on its existing facility from Burns Architecture LLC. The county will next organize public forums and invite comments on whether to hold a bond election or issue certificates of obligation.

Walker County Jail’s need for updating came to light last year when inmate Trent Archie escaped from the institution and spent three days on the run in June 2011. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards reported that had the jail been in compliance with Texas prison standards, that escape would likely not have occurred. Though the jail passed its inspections over the past few years, the Commission has recommended numerous changes, including expanding the facility and adding more bed space to it.

At present, the 162-bed jail poses overpopulation problems, according to Jail Captain Steve Fisher, especially considering that minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security prisoners, as well as women inmates, must all be housed separately.

“I was over population the other day and still had 15 people sitting in Houston County,” said Fisher. “Even if construction started today, it would be another two years before we could house them.”

In Burns Architecture’s feasibility study, the firm estimated that an expansion of the existing county jail would cost $13.8 million, plus another $4 million to house inmates in other locations during the renovations and additions. Building a new facility, architects estimated, would cost upwards of $15.5 million.

Kenneth Burns, a principal at Burns Architecture, stated that major problems exist throughout the existing facility.

“The outside recreation area allows the public to approach inmates. That’s how we get contraband in the jail,” he said, adding that numerous walls in the facility possess cracking and bowing due to foundation stresses.

Other problems that Burns identified include the laundry room and kitchen, which are located outside the jail’s secure zone, and poor visibility and a lack of storage space throughout. Burns suggested a podular design, which allows officers to monitor up to 50 inmates at once from a central location, verses the Walker County Jail’s existing linear formation, where an officer must walk up and down a corridor to fully see inmates.

Of the two proposals put forth by Burns Architecture, the expansion would be the least feasible, according to Burns. The expansion would require adding 30,800 square feet of jail space on a site with only 30,000 square feet of buildable room, some of which would be needed for parking. As a result, the expanded jail would possess parking problems and an inability to accommodate future growth.

The other proposal, a new jail, would involve building a 268-bed, 70,000-square-foot facility elsewhere in the community. One possible area would be on state-owned property situated adjacent to the Walker County Sheriff’s Office. Once the current jail is emptied, the building can be sold to the City of Huntsville at 85 percent of its fair market value, as per an inter-local agreement held between the county and the city.