Posted by: Josh Hinkle | April 23, 2009

Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200.

Burnet County Jail - Men's Cell Block

Burnet County Jail - Men's Cell Block

I’ve been to jail five times.

  1. Face-to-face with a married police officer convicted of murdering his gay lover.
  2. Sex offenders praising God.
  3. Swapping stories with the last “pop” of Iowa’s “mom and pop” jails.
  4. Recalling the lyrics to “Lean On Me” with a slightly off-key group of inmates.
  5. Empty. Dark. Uneventful. The old Burnet County Jail in Burnet, Texas, closed just a few weeks before my visit. It was the latest in my “behind bars” experience as a reporter. They were strange, unsettling times, and I was glad they were each only one-day encounters. I’m not cut out for much more.
Sheriff W.T. Smith

Sheriff W.T. Smith

Sheriff W.T. Smith and I had become somewhat acquainted in my first few weeks in Texas. A meet-and-greet, a home invasion, the normal introductions. Before he joined me in the jail, his chief deputy showed me around. He carried a fistful of tarnished keys, and I could tell the jail wasn’t his realm of familiarity. We wandered the shadowed corridors between cells, feeling our way past strange smells and stacks of old, plastic-lined mats once part of the now empty beds.

As I entered one of the cells, the tripod for my camera echoed loudly when it touched the floor. The chief deputy had left my side, searching for a way to turn on the lights. The sun reached through a window in the corner, as the lamps overhead suddenly flickered to life, buzzing and popping slightly from days of inactivity. He’d found the control room and the switches on the electric panel.

Jail Built In Early 1980s

Jail Built In Early 1980s

As I carried the camera back into the hallway, the cell’s door came to life, motors cranking and pulling the heavy slab of metal and glass into place. The lock crashed down soonafter, and I’m sure I jumped a little. I heard a voice from the control room. “I’m not sure I have the key to that one. You might have had to wait a while.” That last move on my part was unknowingly a smart one.

The sheriff stomped loudly in the distance, as he made his way toward us. His tan cowboy boots and white hat were nothing unusual for law enforcement in the Hill Country. His comfortability was apparent as he rounded the corner. Smith had managed this jail for four years sometime prior to his latest gig in Burnet County. He knew exactly where he was going.

Having a jail full of vacancies was peaceful to him. He told me that he wished there was no need for a place like this. That would mean no prisoners, a crime-free county. But, of course, that wasn’t the case. Overcrowding where we stood had recently become so costly, the county had to transport overflow inmates to a jail in nearby Crystal City and pay to keep them there. With the completion of a new jail nearly six times the size of Smith’s old stomping ground, the problem was seemingly solved.

A few years ago, when the project was still in its early stages, the county issued this statement: “Our goal is to constuct a jail that we will not outgrow until well after the associated debt is paid off. We know our county growth is going to continue, and unfortunately it is fairly safe to predict that corresponding growth in crime and our inmate population will continue, as well.”

Old Burnet County Jail

Old Burnet County Jail

Two things stuck out to me after reading that. The new jail has many more beds than Burnet County needs at this time, and the old jail still has a more than $1 million debt to its name. County Judge Donna Klaeger says she hopes to have it paid off by the time the note is due in two years. Her solution includes filling that jail back up with even more prisoners, renting out the old beds to make money.

I got the feeling Sheriff Smith was unsure about this idea. True, he likes the jail empty. But he also has plans to fill its cells with staff and multiple law enforcement agencies. If crime is going to increase, as the statement predicts, he wants a way to best protect the county. While the judge is open to Smith’s idea, her main priority is making money, which would normally be difficult to do in a recession… without Burnet County’s two jails-of-plenty.

But what happens after the first structure’s debt is down? The new facility costs $27 million, which means the game starts all over again. Will there be a super megajail in the works five years down the road to rent rooms to even more prisoners?

Local opposition to the new jail project was tremendous from what I’ve found. Still, the county ignored those voices and went ahead with plans. Now officials have issued revenue bonds, which came without a vote from taxpayers. That means the new jail must remain full to make the money it needs to survive. Federal inmates, inmates from other counties, U.S. Marshals, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The possibilities are vast.

As we finished up the interview, I told Sheriff Smith his old jail kind of gave me the creeps and that, if he brought a group of teenagers on a tour here, it might scare them into a life of straight-laced behavior. He laughed at me, saying he’s actually entertained that idea himself.

As I left though, I thought about the number of beds needed for prisoners today. I snapped to reality all five times I went inside a jail, startled by the possibility of staying there longer than the story. It might keep the county from earning cash, but a little scare tactic could be the sheriff’s key to cutting down crime. It certainly made  me watch the speed limit more closely on the way home.

Take a Flipcam tour down the halls of the Old Burnet County Jail below and check out my full KXAN story.

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Responses

  1. […] a video tour and check out the entire case for increasing criminals in Burnet County on the “Living Off The Air” blog. You can also connect with me through Twitter or […]

  2. After decades of locking people up and increasing penalties for crimes, it has become apparent that the system of punishment we are using is not working: the recidivism rate is more than 50%.
    Let’s change the punishment. Caning – the practice of hitting someone on the buttocks with a bamboo cane – would inflict enough pain to make the occasion memorable without injuring the person. You may recall that it was famously used in Singapore when a US teen sprayed grafitti on a car.
    We also need to start addressing the causes of crime, such as single-parent families headed by women where male children have no positive role model.


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