Don Munoz, executive director of the Texas Jail Commission (TJC), was the bearer of bad news at the May 31 meeting of Commissioners Court.
Munoz told county officials that the county jail failed a critical safety test that was administered that same morning, and as a result, the county needed to consider the possibility that the jail may be shut down.
Karnes County Sheriff David Jalufka asked Munoz how the Karnes County Jail performed during that morning’s inspection.
Munoz said he and his staff performed a smoke test at the county jail that morning to test how quickly smoke detection equipment would trigger an alarm in the event of a real fire emergency.
“There’s not enough quick detection,” Munoz said, explaining that the detection equipment is required to trigger an alarm within 60 seconds of the appearance of smoke inside the jail.
Munoz said it took approximately 90 seconds before the alarm reacted to the presence of smoke.
“You have got a dangerous situation, right there,” Munoz said. “It is purging sufficient, but just not detected,” Munoz said. “You have got major issues with smoke and in case you have a fire. Probably you have loss of lives is what you have.”
Munoz said the smoke detection was the most significant issue, because it needs to be resolved before any consideration can be given to repair of doors or any other repair issues.
“To be quite honest, you have got a horrible situation,” Munoz said. “You have got a very libelous situation, is what you have.”
Munoz outlined other problems with the jail including rusted showers, and unresolved drainage issues.
“It’s real close to being shut down,” Munoz said. “Since we ordered one side of the jail to be closed down because the doors don’t work, you are basically shipping out (detainees), almost every day.”
“How you decide to address that is certainly an issue that Karnes County’s Commissioners Court has got to come up with, but certainly until you fix the smoke situation -- whatever it is going to cost -- I would strongly suggest to you that I may recommend at the next meeting that we shut this jail down. It’s just a very dangerous situation.”
“It’s not to penalize you, it is to keep you out of lawsuits,” Munoz said.
Munoz said that it may be as soon as August before he recommends closing the jail at the next meeting of the Texas Jail Commission.
“Unless this court, or the sheriff’s office comes up with a plan of action quickly that addresses it quickly... You’ve had over a year to try and get some stuff done. We have tried to work with you, but what I’ve seen today is a horrible situation.”
Commissioner Pete Jauer asked if prisoners could still be booked at the jail and then transported somewhere else for detention and Munoz said that yes, that would be allowable.
Sheriff Jalufka said that he has been trying for years to keep the jail up to operational standards.
“I knew that we were going to get in this situation,” Jalufka said. “I was always told that there was never enough money, never enough money to do everything in the county --roads, annex...”
Jalufka explained that a high power fan was recently installed to help remove smoke quickly from areas inside the jail.
A representative from TJC who was at the meeting said that the fan is working properly -- the issue now is that detection of the smoke is not happening quickly enough.
“The smoke fan that was put in there, works fine,” he said. “That was a good fix and it was definitely needed.”
Munoz said the jail was currently operating under variances allowed because of the age of the facility that could be lifted by the commission if the jail falls out of compliance.
County officials discussed what might be the cost to upgrade the detection equipment, but THC officials were reluctant to give a dollar amount.
Commissioner Tracey Schendel suggested the possibility of knocking down the jail to build a new one.
Munoz said he would send a letter to county officials that sets a timeline for coming up with a plan of action. The time limit specified, is 30 days, he explained.
“I’m sorry I don’t bring good news,” Munoz concluded.
Sheriff Jalufka said that it has been a constant struggle to keep the jail up to modern operational capabilty.
“Everybody has got their agenda, but this is the safety of getting the people off the street and putting them somewhere,” Jalufka explained.
Jalufka said beds at the GEO Group prison facility, is a temporary solution, at best, although the contract still provides for county jail beds for the next nine years, but even those are falling short of what was promised.
County Auditor Lajuana Kasprzyk said the contract calls for 30 free beds, but the county is only getting 15.
“A year ago we were supposed to get these 30 free beds,” Jalufka said. “They cut my budget $22,000 for detention. I knew we were going to get these 30 free beds. I knew this. The judge told me. GEO told me. They said, ‘Sheriff, we are going to get them.’ Well here we are again. We haven’t gotten them. We are waiting. Here we go again, Karnes County, we are waiting one more time for something free -- we are trying to get there. We are waiting. Let’s not spend any money because somebody is going to give us something for free, and then it is not happening.”
The Karnes Countywide has attempted to contact County Judge Barbara Shaw several times since the May 31 meeting in an effort ask what type of plan of action she and other county officials may be considering in order to prevent the closure of the Karnes County Jail, but phone messages and email messages to the county judge’s office have not been returned.