Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sheriff looking for some answers on using old jail

Waco – Sheriff Parnell McNamara told The Legendary he has been unable to learn why he can't use the lockup at the McLennan County Courthouse to house overflow prisoners.

According to the County Auditor in Commissioners Court sessions at budget time, cost overruns to the “outside care” budget at $45.50 per prisoner per day paid to the for-profit New Jersey corporation CEC, Inc., to house inmates at the Jack Harwell Detention Center ran to 300% over plans for fiscal year 2012.

Officials of the State Commission on Jail Standards said the lockup at the Courthouse Annex has an operating permit, that County officials voluntarily withdrew prisoners to make costly renovations simultaneous to remodeling a Visiting Judge Courtroom on the first floor of the building that seats about 500 people for jury selection and large docket calls.

One may hear an edited audio discussion of a discussion that took place five months ago of the estimated costs of renovation of the jail by clicking here:

An elevator brings defendants in custody straight to that courtroom from the floors above without requiring a trip across the catwalk that connects the third floor of the Courthouse with the holding cells. Jurors and spectators may enter directly from a door on the alley between the two buildings where a magnetometer is located for security purposes. Presently, jurors, witnesses, defendants, lawyers and judges must enter the building at the eastern door of the Courthouse, ascend to the third floor, goes across the catwalk, then descend to the first floor of the Courthouse Annex building by another elevator.

State Criminal 19th District Judge Ralph T. Strother ordered a change of venue in the capital murder trial of Albert Love, partly over security concerns. He is the second of five defendants allegedly associated with the Chicago-based street gang called the Bloods who were originally charged in a gangland assault rifle slaying of two men and the wounding of two others at a subsidized housing project named Lakeside Villas in March of 2011.

Prosecutors have dropped indictments of two of the defendants due to a lack of key evidence. Rickey Cummings received the death penalty following a tense courtroom drama last fall in which members of the victims' families stared down relatives of the assailants in the crowded third floor rotunda of the courthouse.

Visibly shaken jurors were forced to walk a fine line from the courtroom to the jury room during breaks. Deputies admonished news photographers to be extra careful about catching images of the jurors in their lenses, on pain of the threatened ejection of every member of the media who uses a camera.

Deputies walked escorted jurors to a school bus in the parking lot, which whisked them away to a remote location where they parked their cars, and the Judge received armed protection as he walked to his vehicle at the close of each day's hearing. Prosecutors and defense counselors will pick a jury for the upcoming trial at the Williamson County Courthouse at Georgetown in the coming months.

The item of using the lockup is on today's County Commissioners Court agenda under the heading of a work session.

It has been placed on the weekly agenda for nearly three years, a constant point of inquiry for members of the Commissioners Court, who ask nearly every week about progress on the renovation project, but receive little or no information from contractors and building supervisors who work for McLennan County.

As late as two months ago, County Judge Scott Felton told the Court he thought the only thing left to do was to fix the drains on some showers and finish a touch-up painting project.

One may listen to an audited audio report of a discussion of that matter by clicking here.

In a subsequent meeting last Tuesday, he told the Court that there was no information available about the matter, and the moment passed.

Former Sheriff Larry Lynch denied The Legendary access to the jail to take pictures of the renovation job, but allowed a reporter from the “Waco Tribune-Herald” to visit, along with a photographer.

Reached for comment, Sheriff McNamara said, “I don't know why that's taking so long. It seems to me like it's taking an awfully long time.”

He stressed a need for good communications with the members of the Commissioners Court, members of which approve his department's budget.

The matter of outside care of prisoners and the Sheriff's Department budget prompted a proposal of a tax increase for fiscal year 2013, a measure slapped down and the proposed tax increase halved by the Court. They eliminated the position of County Budget Director and the two-man department and passed the duty to the County Auditor's office, which is under the supervision of the State District Judges who preside in the courts of McLennann County.

One may hear a budget cut proposal voiced at the time by Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry by clicking here:

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