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Problem or progress: Multimillion-dollar Bell County jail expansion underway

Posted at 7:16 PM, Aug 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-09 20:16:53-04

BELL COUNTY, Texas — After struggling with capacity issues for years now, the Bell County jail system is expanding. The multimillion-dollar project is expected to add hundreds of beds and additional resources for inmates. While some applaud the expansion, some people believe it's a bad idea.

Hard hats and cement trucks are signs construction is moving forward with a nearly $14 million expansion project, for two of Bell County's jails.

Bell County Judge David Blackburn said, "Between two facilities between our Central Jail, as well as the Loop jail, which is out on Loop 121. That will almost double the capacity of our existing jail; adding are getting us over 700 beds in the facility."

Judge Blackburn said talks of a diversion center for lower-level offenders who have mental illnesses is also in its early stages of development.

"These are folks with perhaps mental health issues where low-level offenses have been committed, they don't present a threat to themselves or others, but they need some sort of medical care, mental health care," Blackburn said. "This diversion center would be a place where we can divert those folks from the jail, which is a much more expensive option for us and for the taxpayers to do. I'm optimistic that we'll be able to put that plan in that facility together also."

However, where Blackburn sees progress, others see a problem.

"Instead of investing the money that the county is wanting to invest in building a bigger jail, you should look at front-end issues like front-end solutions," said Krish Gundu, the co-founder of the Texas Jail Project. "You can build a bigger jail, but that's not going to solve the problems of the conditions, policies and practices."

Gundu works year-round to ensure human treatment for people who are incarcerated in Texas county jails. Investing in a bigger jail is not the solution to the problem, according to Gundu.

"How can you divert in the front end? How can you cut down the intake on the front end, instead of just locking people up?" said Gundu.

Anna Harris is a local attorney with Just-Us Participatory Defense, and she agrees with Gundu.

"Damage control is not working, and it's super costly to taxpayers, right? It's triple the amount for rehab or pretrial diversion. It's like why not...save tax dollars, increase public safety rehab; your residents," said Harris.

Bell County currently has contracts with eight other counties to house 261 inmates. Blackburn said these contracts will likely remain in effect even after the jail's expansion.

"I think those contracts will be reduced greatly when we open the new facility and the new expansion. I don't know that they'll ever go away," said Blackburn.

As far as that diversion center, Gundu and Harris compare it to a drop in the ocean.

"In my experience, all the specialty courts and diversion programs that we have in play right now in the state are deplorable," said Harris.

"Are they here because they're unhoused? Are they here because they're mentally ill? Are they here because they have a disease and addiction? All those shouldn't be criminalized. Look at the people who need to be in there," said Gundu. "If you want populations cut down you have to look at pretrial services and investing in indigent defense and public defenders."

While they disagree, the plans are already in motion. Judge Blackburn said his main priority is always the people of Bell County.

"Public safety has always been the number one priority for Bell County, and I think the expansion of the jail is just a continuation of a reflection of that priority," said Blackburn.

He projects the expansions will be completed within the next 18-24 months.