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County commissioners debate fate of federal inmates, downtown jail

El Paso County commissioners are still working on the goal of reducing the jail population and possibly shutting down the downtown jail, but it’s hard to say exactly when any of that will happen.

“You know, we still are not close to a decision,” El Paso County Judge Veroncia Escobar said.

Commissioners heard an update this week on negotiations about housing federal inmates, with a constant sticking point on whether it’s worth it or not at the payment from U.S. Marshals at $80 per inmates a day versus the overall costs of maintaining the jail. But commissioners did hear about some positive changes in the overall jail situation.

“Good news is there have been some significant savings,” Escobar said. “And I think most of the savings have been achieved through the reductions in overtime and the change in scheduling by the Sheriff, as well as the brand new contract that the commissioner’s court approved with the sheriff’s association. I think hopefully we’ll see some savings at some point with the reforms, I think there are probably already some some in the pipeline, from the reforms to the criminal justice administration.”

While completion of the jail annex in far east El Paso has been delayed, once done it is expected to bring total jail capacity close to 2,000 inmates. With an average daily jail population of about 1,500 without federal inmates, shutting the downtown jail down seems feasible to some commissioners like Vince Perez, who has pushed for it repeatedly. But logistical issues like how to transfer inmates to the courthouse could require at least the first two floors of that jail to still be used for now.

“There’s a tunnel that exists underground that connects the two buildings,” Escobar said. “And so even if we make the determination that we would accept no federal prisoners, that doesn’t answer the question of what to do with the building.”

If commissioners do decide to stop housing federal inmates, they will have to give 120 days notice to the U.S. Marshal’s Service first.

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