by BRAD ROLLINS
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards this morning ordered Hays County officials to close the jail’s kitchen by Nov. 20, citing continued unsanitary conditions.
During a surprise visit to the jail on Tuesday, the second in less than a month, state inspectors said they found mold and mildew in a walk-in cooler and food preparation areas. At the Thursday morning hearing in Austin, County Judge Elizabeth Sumter, flanked by Commissioners Will Conley, Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe and Karen Ford, said local officials are moving aggressively to resolve problems that have caused the state agency to threaten a total shutdown of the 362-bed facility. TCJS Executive Director Adan Muñoz said the efforts aren’t good enough.
“It is up to you to decide how quickly you want to fix your problems at the jail and come into compliance,” said Muñoz, who initially recommended that the kitchen be closed today before the commission agreed to Sheriff Tommy Ratliff’s request for two weeks.
The public dressing down set off a series of sharp exchanges between Ratliff (pictured) and members of the commissioners court, who have authorized $1.4 million for a new roof, heating and ventilation system and other repairs and chaffed at Muñoz’s contention that “you have not made any definitive progress.”
Speaking to reporters outside the Jail Standards meeting, Ratliff laid the problems at the feet of the commissioners court, of whom he said, “I think we got their attention” now.
He went out to recount how he notified the court of problems at the jail in March, three months after taking office, and a month before the first of a series of TCJS inspections that led to the kitchen shutdown order today.
“I really felt like these things were going to be done back then … They were a little slow to get started and take these issues seriously. I don’t think they realized the seriousness of the situation. We felt like the ball was pretty much in their court,” Ratliff said.
Ratliff has repeatedly rankled commissioners by not showing up for court sessions and workshops related to the jail like a vote on Tuesday to award a $424,000 contract to Austin-based Fifth Wall Roofing for the roof replacement.
The court put the roof replacement out for bid this summer after the first failed inspection in April but before the second in October. But part of the money they earmarked for the repair, about $245,000, was won through a class-action lawsuit against the old roof’s manufacturer. Red tape related to receiving that money prevented the court from awarding a contract for the job until now, Sumter said.
Conley, who serves on a committee tasked with bringing the jail into compliance, said he and other commissioners were blindsided by the most recent inspection this week. He said he did not know about it “until we were standing at the podium” at today’s hearing in the Reagan state office building. Asked by a reporter outside the meeting, Sumter conceded she knew of the inspection yesterday but did not inform her colleagues on the court.
Ratliff bears responsibility for not cleaning up mold, mildew, rust and other superficial problems that could have been resolved while waiting for major repairs to start, Conley said.
“We know the issues with the roof are directly linked to the overall issues that we’re having at the jail in many ways. It does not mean that under the proper maintenance program that we can’t have a sanitary kitchen on a day-to-day basis. It does not mean that standing water is acceptable to the commissioners court or the Jail Standards commission and nor should it be acceptable to the sheriff,” Conley said. “I am very disappointed in the sheriff and his failure to maintain the jail and pass inspections. I strongly advise him to come up with a program to keep the place clean and sanitary and perform basic maintenance.”
Meanwhile, Ratliff and Sumter used the occasion and resulting press coverage to argue for construction of a new jail which won’t allay their critics’ suspicions that the current jail woe are being exacerbated to justify a new facility. Sumter said the county “already owns property” where a jail could be built. Asked to which property she referred, she said “just pieces of property throughout the county. A jail doesn’t have to be built in the county seat.”
Asked by a Jail Standards commissioner if two weeks is enough time to make stop-gap arrangements such as establishing a mobile kitchen on the jail grounds, Ratliff said, “We’re going to have to live with it. We’re sure going to make it work.”
Sumter said she would call an emergency session of the commissioners court to expend money to pay for a mobile kitchen, which Ratliff estimated would cost about $10,000 a month. No one had gotten sick at the jail due to food quality, Ratliff said.Email | Print