Fresh coats of paint and fresh faces of leadership are arriving at Jack Harwell Detention Center, two months ahead of the Oct. 1 takeover by McLennan County Sheriff’s Office officials.

McLennan County Jail inmates began laying down primer and painting dormitory cells at Harwell on Monday, following work this month to clean the cells. Staff promotions and plans for new administrative rankings for Harwell have fallen into place as McLennan County prepares to reclaim the jail from a private contractor.

“I think we will be ready,” said Major Ricky Armstrong, jail administrator. “We’ve been working to get staff in place and get the jail cleaned up so it is fresh and ready for us to move in to the jail.”

On midnight Sunday, a total of 768 inmates were housed at McLennan County Jail. Harwell housed 574 inmates, including 335 McLennan County inmates and 202 federal inmates.

Harwell was built in 2010 and was controlled by Louisiana-based, for-profit LaSalle Corrections. The jail will be operated by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 1 after LaSalle opted not to renew its contract with the county in May.

The decision not to renew the contract came after the county first saw an increase in payments made to LaSalle last year, from about $6.1 million to $8 million. LaSalle failed three Texas Commission of Jail Standards inspections in August 2018, November 2018 and last March, resulting in the state placing a remedial order on the facility.

Armstrong, who has overseen operations at the McLennan County Jail since 2015, was promoted from a captain to the rank of major in preparation to oversee both jails by October. He said Sheriff Parnell McNamara promoted a new administration team to oversee 115 employees, including jailers, medical staff and civilians at the Harwell facility.

“The sheriff asked the (McLennan County Commissioners) Court to change the rank structure to address the double responsibility, double amount of inmate capacity,” Armstrong said.

Mike Garrett, a former lieutenant at the county jail, was promoted to captain and will oversee Harwell jail. His colleague, Karen Anderson, was promoted from lieutenant to captain and will act as an assistant jail administrator at McLennan County Jail.

“Oh, I think there will be a little separation anxiety, but we are still going to work together, just be in separate buildings,” Garrett said.

Additional staff promotions were made this month, including promoting five former jail sergeants to lieutenants, including John Phillips, Casey Boehme, Joel Barrientos and Sue Tweedle. Lieutenants will be split between the two jails to help control any issues that may arise after the transition.

Harwell staff was placed back in compliance in May, shortly after the decision was made to turn control back to the council. Garrett said his plans include keeping Harwell in compliance.

“I am very excited for the challenge, I want to keep it flowing to keep up with inspections and keeping it in compliance,” he said. “We are going to run it as efficiently as we can. Compliance has been an issue, so we need to get everything cleaned up and keep it in compliance.”

McLennan County trusty inmates worked at the neighboring jail that is connected to Harwell through its kitchen. Armstrong said while the takeover is a lot of work, he believes the staff in place for both facilities will be a success.

“This week we are cleaning the cells that are empty, doing some painting and some light maintenance work just to get the Harwell jail looking better,” Armstrong said. “I don’t know if we will have it all painted before Oct. 1 when we move in, but we will be able to move inmates to get the rest of it painted as soon as possible.

County staff plans to expand mental health services with the move into Harwell and offer reintegration programs. He said it may take six months to a year to establish programs and get them running, but the move will be a benefit.

“I think we will definitely be ready for October, I think,” Armstrong said.

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Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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