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Vacant Bell County jail may be years away from housing prisoners

by Matt Johnson

BELTON - More than $5 million has gone into remodeling a Bell County jail that remains vacant and may not have a need for inmates for at least two years.

The Central Jail on Central Avenue in Belton has undergone extensive renovation since inmates were transferred to the new Justice Complex in 2009.  However, the county had hoped the new-look, $5.7 million facility would bring in inmates from neighboring counties, and more revenue, but those counties are making other plans.

"We've used McLennan County," said Coryell County Judge John Firth.  "We believe that it is probably the most cost-effective for Coryell County."

On Monday, the Bell County Commissioner's Court agreed to purchase nearly $60,000 worth of mattresses for future inmates at the Central Jail.  Upgrades to the kitchen and air ventilation system have been an ongoing project for months. 

Bell County Judge Jon Burrows says the plan was always for the jail to be empty at this point, so that the renovation process would be simpler.

"If you're telling me we need to have built a facility that's full the moment we get it built, then we haven't planned," said Burrows.

According to Burrows, the inmate population in the county grows by 30 people each year.  With approximately 30 spaces left until the jail at the new Justice Complex is at its maximum capacity of 706, the county is expected to house its first prisoners at the Central Jail in 2012.

That is, if the trend continues.  County Jail Administrator Major Bob Patterson tells News Channel 25 the statewide prison population is declining.

Nevertheless, Judge Burrows says the county is merely planning ahead, and that he expects the county to see an influx of inmates because of state budget cuts.

"The state may be releasing prisoners into the system out of the state and penitentiary," said Burrows. "Those people tend to make their way back into the local criminal justice system."

If the county decides to look into leasing cells at its Central Jail, it will have competition.  McLennan County charges roughly $12 less per inmate per day than Bell County does, at $45 and $57 each, respectively.

Judge Firth says, "If they could match or beat the offer or the cost that we're incurring at this point for McLennan county, I'm sure the Commissioner's Court in Coryell County would be more than willing to entertain any offer."

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