Bell County Jail

George Powell leaves the Bell County Justice Center with his fiancée, Tamara Parsons, in Belton on Sept. 28, 2019.

BELTON — The population strain at the Bell County Jail will lessen after an agreement with Mills County was signed Monday.

An agreement between the two counties — the sixth such agreement the county has made with another government — was unanimously approved by the Commissioners Court in a 5-0 vote. The agreement would allow Bell County to house between 10 and 15 inmates in Mills County as space there allows.

The county currently has similar agreements with Burnett, Milam, McLennan, Robertson and Limestone counties with a range of various capacities.

Jeff Buuck, chief deputy of the Bell County Sheriff’s Department, said space at these six facilities frequently changes day to day and making sure there was enough room for county inmates is a constant job.

“When we are carrying about 1,000 inmates at our facilities, we are at capacity,” Buuck said. “It is a lot like Tetris if you will; you got to kind of fit the pieces in. We are at capacity so we use these interlocal agreements to give us breathing room and bring them back as space is available.”

The agreement between the counties sets a cost of $50 per day for each inmate that Bell County has staying at the other jail, not including medical costs or transportation.

Bell County Judge David Blackburn said that on paper the county could hold about 1,184 inmates in total at both its Loop Jail and Central Jail facilities.

“I say on paper because paper capacity is just that, it is a paper number,” Blackburn said. “In reality, due to staffing shortages, or absences or other circumstances, we can never actually house 1,184, at least not that I have seen. In reality, our capacity number is usually around the 1,000 mark.”

Buuck said the need for room to move around inmates based upon classification, gender and possible sickness means he usually likes to keep the jail population around 925. He said the county jail system, including those in other counties, was at 1,008 Tuesday morning.

In the future, Buuck said, the sheriff’s department plans to seek two additional agreements with nearby counties for a total of eight. These other counties would include Williamson to the south and Lampasas to the west.

Buuck said he is currently waiting for Lampasas County, which recently completed a new jail, to finish staffing its facility and the new sheriff in Williamson County to get settled in.

The county is currently in the process of expanding the jail while also building a minimum security facility to temporarily house inmates until the expansion is built.

While the expansion of the jail is set to be a part of a $138 million bond, Blackburn said sending inmates to other facilities has cost the county $650,000 so far in housing and transportation costs. He said he expects this amount to increase to about $2 million by September.

“There are no good, easy or inexpensive solutions to addressing the problem of overcapacity in the jail — there just isn’t,” Blackburn said. “But the time has come, in my mind, to face the issue and expand the jail.”