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Tarrant County Jail: One Year Later

By Suzanne Sprague

FORT WORTH – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: One year ago, Tarrant County commissioners rarely had anything positive to say about the county jail or the county sheriff. [Sound of jail door closing.] They even sued then-Sheriff David Williams over a contract to run the jail commissary. But these days, County Judge Tom Vandergriff is all smiles when he talks about the jail under the management of Dee Anderson.

Tom Vandergriff, Tarrant County Judge: He has put into place a system that is far and above what we had before, so we are high on our praise for his actions in that regard.

Sprague: Since taking office in January, Sheriff Anderson has closed one small aging and expensive county jail; he's redirected commissary funds from a private company to the county's coffers; and, he's shut down the so-called "God Pod," a Christian-only jail ministry program that the Texas Supreme Court called "unconstitutional."

Dee Anderson, Tarrant County Sheriff: We stopped it the day the court decision came down, and we are really making an intense effort to offer religious and spiritual guidance and services to inmates who want it across the spectrum.

Sprague: Anderson hired former county chaplain David Barrett to fill the new position of Director of Inmate Services. Barrett's job includes giving inmates of all faiths access to religious guidance. But Judge Vandergriff and Fort Worth City Manager Gary Jackson say the biggest change they've noticed at the jail is - Sheriff Anderson actually talks to them.

Gary Jackson, Fort Worth City Manager: The operation of the jail seems to be more business-like. Sheriff Anderson has built an expectation that there be more communication and more accountability. We're getting answers, where before we weren't getting answers. Now, that doesn't mean we don't always like the answers, but there seems to be an air of professionalism.

Sprague: The "answers" Jackson didn't like involve the time it took the jail to book city prisoners.

Jackson: We were averaging 20 minutes with the county since the new sheriff took over, which was a significant improvement over what it was in the previous sheriff's administration. We, however, were experiencing on some occasions peaks of three hours, and we didn't find that was acceptable.

Sprague: Sheriff Anderson says he knows of no book-in time that took three hours. But he acknowledges there's room for improvement. However, he won't get that chance with Fort Worth prisoners anytime soon because last month, the city terminated its contract with the county. Fort Worth officials estimated they could save $5 million over the next five years if they housed their prisoners in Mansfield instead. Sheriff Anderson says there are no hard feelings.

Anderson: During the negotiations, I likened it to going to the grocery store - if you don't like the prices at Kroger, you go to Albertson's. And they didn't like our prices. Well, they were certainly free to shop elsewhere. And there was no animosity in that regard from us. All we wanted was if we were going to continue to do it, we wanted to get paid what it was costing us.

Sprague: Anderson says the county was losing money by taking in city prisoners. So, he expects the move will be better for the county financially. And, since the jail was already understaffed, he doesn't anticipate having to lay off any employees. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.