Smith County readies debut of new jail center

TYLER (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - County commissioner Jeff Warr talked about the concrete and steel building that will serve as the Smith County Jail System's kitchen, laundry and visitation center as if he was a doting parent.

Inside the new 14,000 square-foot stand alone building at the county's Low Risk Facility north of Loop 323 on U.S. Highway 69, Warr pointed at details he says will make the overall $35 million voter-approved jail improvement project a long-lasting addition for the community.

The county commissioners will have a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Low Risk addition at 10 a.m. today. The ceremony will be followed by a tour for the general public at 10:30 a.m.

RPR Construction managed Phase 1 of the project, which will cost around $3.5 million and included moving the Smith County jail system's kitchen and laundry to its Low Risk facility where expansion was possible. Phase 2, the expansion of the downtown facility, broke ground this April.

Construction of the downtown phase will accelerate when the Low Risk kitchen and laundry are opened.

In the end, the jail system will add 384 beds, increasing its inmate capacity to 1,139 from 755, improve the central jail floor plan, add an infirmary and video visitation center and move the kitchen and laundry facilities.

Phase 1 includes a new 14,000 square-foot stand-alone building to house the laundry, kitchen and video visitation at the Low Risk site.

The current laundry and kitchen serve more than 700 inmates daily.

Planners said the move makes sense because the central jail houses the most violent offenders. The building's construction will not be as costly as the central jail project because of federal and state requirements regarding security.

Moving the laundry and kitchen will open more room for the administration staff, book-in and holding cells, Warr said.

"The difference is night and day," he said. "This is the nerve center for the whole jail system, and when this comes online we are going to see some real movement downtown."

Warr said the new facility should serve the jail system decades into the future.

Senior Professional Associate for HDR Architecture Curt Parde said the kitchen was built to support existing demand and future growth.

The kitchen, used since 1985 when the downtown jail was opened, is 2,380 square feet. It's fitted with dated commercial cooking equipment and has little freezer, refrigerated and dry storage.

The new kitchen area includes 6,230 square feet of centralized space with new commercial equipment, including commercial grade mixers and ovens, and much larger freezer, cooler and dry storage for the county to make bulk purchases, Parde said.

Parde noted that the kitchen was ready to be upgraded after being in operation 365 days each year for almost 30 years.

"The existing equipment and finishes are old and barely meeting health code standards," he said.

Parde said moving the kitchen and laundry will free up room to improve the downtown jail's layout, including increasing space for book-ins and an infirmary.

County Judge Joel Baker endured multiple bond package failures and expressed relief after the bond package passed in May 2011. The bond package not only will end the mandatory shipment of prisoners but also will address long-term safety concerns and logistical redundancies.

Baker and Warr believe changes to the jail's support system will pay dividends.

Another part of the addition at Low Risk includes a 2,800 square foot "video visitation" site. All visitors will come to the Low Risk facility to see and talk to inmates via video conferencing. Video monitors in more than a two dozen booths will be linked to cells, reducing the number of times inmates are moved by jailers.

"Moving inmates is when most of your assaults against our jailers happens," Sheriff J.B. Smith said. "Video visitation reduces that and addresses other concerns such as contraband."

The bond project is expected to be complete in early 2014. Taxpayers will pay a total of $40 million for bonded debt over 12 years. The bond will add 1 cent per $100 valuation, meaning a $100,000 home would see a $10 increase on its tax bill.

In 2006, 2007 and 2008, four different jail plans with costs ranging from $59.6 million to $125 million were defeated soundly by voters.


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