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State inspectors green-light return to operations after ten years
“We delivered,” Frio County Chief Deputy Peter Salinas said in an interview Monday morning. “The sheriff ran his campaign on a foundation to bring honest policing, trust back into this department that he would reopen the jail.”
The jail became a 72-hour holding facility in December 2010 after the GEO Group terminated its operations contract with the county to lease the jail.
Since the GEO departure, the jail was closed by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards twice after the facility failed its state inspections, once in 2015 and again in February 2019.
During an interview in February this year, a month after taking office, Sheriff Mike Morse made no promises regarding when his staff would open the jail but was adamant it would happen ‘soon.’
“It is the number one priority, but I do not have a time frame for when it will reopen; people are just going to have to take my word,” the sheriff said.
The sheriff said the jail not serving as a full-time facility hinders prosecutions and arrests.
From 2017 to 2020, the county commissioners’ court channeled nearly two million dollars into improvements to the antiquated infrastructure of the facility.
“The infrastructure is shot,” Morse said. “The plumbing, electrical, door mechanisms; the whole thing is shot.”
Salinas said that multiple changes to holding cells were warranted to meet jail standards.
According to the chief deputy, in a span of ten months, the plumbing, HVAC system, fire sprinklers, intercom and phone system, a digital law library and a total kitchen upgrade have been implemented in order to meet the standards set forth by the state jail standards commission.
“The kitchen basically had just a microwave they were using to warm up food,” the chief deputy said. “We had to get a dishwasher, refrigerator, freezer, a washer and dryer.”
A redesigned recreation yard was also required for inmates.
Morse said the task to repair the facility was not easy, citing some resistance from commissioners’ court when it came to funding.
“The previous sheriff did not attend to his business, so the money budgeted for jail repairs was given to another department and we had to fight for it,” the sheriff said.
TDCJ Executive Director Brandon Wood sent a letter on Monday reclassifying the facility as a county jail and granted staff the permission to begin operating without restrictions.
According to Salinas, deputies will begin transporting county inmates housed in other counties back to Pearsall on Friday.
“We are going to start with ten,” Salinas said. “We want our staff to get used to additional standards that come with full-time facility status. Our goal is to expand to up to 64 inmates by the end of this fiscal year. If this occurs, the savings from not having to house inmates outside the county will be seen, and we hope to facilitate more staff.”
The department has currently filled 15 of the 16 budgeted jailer positions. The county is spending between $50,000 and $60,000 a month to house roughly 48 inmates in Karnes, La Salle, Zavala, Dimmit, Uvalde and Bandera counties. Records show the sheriff’s department spent $600,000 to house inmates elsewhere last fiscal year. This year, Salinas has budgeted half that amount.
According to the chief deputy, the influx of offenders brought in by local law enforcement will determine if the facility is able to house out-of-county inmates.
In late October, Morse requested a technical assistance inspection by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to determine if the facility would be authorized to operate as a county jail. Wood, TDCJ Planner Alicia Soto-Barker and Inspector Michael Gravitt conducted the inspection on November 1.
The inspection found “some areas that need to be addressed by administration.”
“One of the most concerning areas is the documentation of medication administration records that indicates whether the medication was given or refused,” the report stated.
“We have a contract with South Texas Rural Health and basically we will have medical services on a 24-hour, on-call basis,” Salinas said.
With medical services readily available to inmates, Salinas said it alleviates staff shortages, as personnel do not have to transport inmates to and from doctors’ appointments.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, visitation for inmates will be available through a video-conferencing phone system. However, Salinas said he does foresee in-person visitation in the future.
“We could not have done this without the staff, especially Chief Salinas, Lt. Meyers, Sgt. Calvillo and the jail staff,” the sheriff says.
The sheriff attributes the jail reopening to a networking approach with the Texas Association of Counties, area sheriffs and TDCJ Executive Director Wood. Morse said the department staff underwent two mock walk-throughs, at their request, and Wood visited the facility two times to provide feedback.
“This is a huge milestone for the county,” Morse said. “We are establishing honesty and accountability within the county. I am proud of all my staff. They really stepped up to the plate and there is a sense of pride now.”
Morse also addressed what he described as misconceptions that the jail was not receiving inmates.
“That is incorrect,” he said. “We are accepting them but we could not hold them longer than 72 hours. We had to limit it to violent offenders, habitual offenders and those who were detrimental to society. People do not understand that once someone is arrested we have to find a place for them. A lot of counties are at capacity.”
Staff at the jail held a grand re-opening ceremony on Wednesday, November 17.
“The opening of the Frio County Jail is a tremendous accomplishment and is a direct reflection of the hard work and dedication of Sheriff Morse, Chief Salinas and their entire staff,” Pct. 3 Comm. Raul Carrizales said Tuesday morning. “Having a functioning jail in the county again not only brings back some pride to this great county but will be of great benefit to the taxpayers. I am happy to have been part of this and, once again, congratulations to the sheriff’s office.”
“The Frio County Jail was the third facility ordered shut down in the history of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards,” Pct. 4 Comm. Jose Asuncion said this week. “Sheriff Morse and his crew inherited a rare problem they didn’t create. But through planning, budgeting, and collaboration with other county offices, they delivered what many elected officials and county residents no longer believed was possible, namely a full-time detention facility.
“Congratulations to everyone involved,” Comm. Asuncion added. “Hopefully, the scrutiny can shift away from the county jail and back to county commissioners’ court policy, so we can foster a community that focuses on crime prevention and keeps our kids out of jail.”