Dallas County could be forced to move 900 prisoners

State regulators may force Dallas County to move up to 900 prisoners out of its largest and most-populated jail tower because of lingering fire-safety concerns.

If so, the county would probably have to reopen the Decker jail that was recently depopulated so the county could centralize its jail operations on the Lew Sterrett Justice Center campus.

The moving of so many prisoners would not only be costly at a time when the county is staring at a $60 million budget shortfall, it also would create logistical headaches.

Because the north tower jail houses those accused of the most serious crimes, the question would be where to put them. Decker can hold up to 1,080 inmates but it is a minimum-security jail. The new $65 million south tower jail that recently opened can take another 400 inmates, officials say. But it doesn’t have high-risk inmates because its guards work inside inmate housing areas.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has summoned county officials to its meeting on Thursday in Austin to find out what’s being done to repair fire-safety systems in the north tower jail, among other things.

Faulty smoke-detection and removal systems there contributed to the county’s seventh-straight failed inspection in March.

If the jail commissioners are not satisfied with the county’s progress, they might consider rescinding a 1994 exception to state rules that allowed the county to add 928 extra bunks to the north tower’s cells, some county officials say.

Adan Munoz, the jail commission’s executive director, said he could not comment on what action the jail commission may take.

He said he will brief the jail commissioners on recent and past jail problems in Dallas County. County officials then will present their plan of action, and it will be up to the jail commission to decide how to act, he said.

“Dallas County needs to step up and correct their deficiencies,” he said. “We would like to see some end results quicker.”

Because of jail crowding when the north tower opened in 1994, county officials asked the jail commission for special permission to add more bunks than normally would be allowed in its cells. State jail standards call for a minimum square footage in single and group cells to allow enough space for inmates to move around.

The rule exception, known as a variance, allowed the county to increase the number of beds without having to add an additional wing.

County officials say they have a plan for fixing the north tower’s fire-safety systems, which aren’t detecting or removing smoke fast enough.

Commissioner John Wiley Price said Munoz is right to be concerned about the county’s response to life-safety issues. But he said that when the jail commission sees the steps the county is taking, it will not pull the bunk variance.

“The director wants our attention and he’s got our attention,” Price said. “All we want is to tell our story. Hopefully, they’ll understand we’ve acted in good faith.”

The county’s temporary plan is to install a portable exhaust fan system to help suck smoke out of the building, Price said. It will consist of gigantic fans with hoses that will plug into ports in the cells.

The longer-term solution is to hire a firm to re-balance the north tower’s air-handling system.

Air balancing is a complex system of making sure you suck out a little more air than you pump into a cell so that smoke doesn’t drift into hallways and other cells. That system can fall out of balance if equipment like air ducts, dampers and fans isn’t properly maintained.

Ryan Brown, the county budget director, estimated that those fixes would cost a half-million dollars and take about six months to complete. Also, the county will replace about 1,600 smoke detectors at $100 each, he said.

“My hope is that they can see we’ve done enough on a temporary basis to improve safety,” Commissioner Mike Cantrell said. “We’re trying to offer a solution.”

While the county has improved jail health and sanitation, maintenance lapses continue to hamper the operation of critical fire-safety systems.

State inspectors have consistently noted faulty fire-safety systems in nearly all of the county’s five jails since 2004. The county recently spent more than $5 million to repair the west tower jail’s smoke-removal system.

Last March was the first time state inspectors noted smoke-detection and removal problems in the north tower jail. However, county fire marshal reports revealed that the building had a history of such problems since as early as 2004.

Commissioners recently voted to form a special maintenance team specifically for the jails.

County Judge Jim Foster and three of the county commissioners are planning to attend Thursday’s meeting in Austin, as well as Sheriff Lupe Valdez and some of her command staff.




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