Sheriff candidates talk inmate overcrowding at forum

EDINBURG — Candidates for national, state and county offices gathered here Monday to speak their minds on a variety of topics in a candidate forum hosted by Futuro RGV.

Politicians at the event included candidates for U.S. Congressional District 15, Texas House District 36, Texas House District 41, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra responded to questions alongside Democratic primary challengers Frank Guerrero and Raul Salinas at the forum.

Eddie Guerra

Esequiel “Zeik” Jurado, the Republican party candidate for sheriff, did not speak at the event.

Many of the questions posed to the sheriff candidates Monday focused on overcrowding at the Hidalgo County Jail and how to combat it.

All three candidates agreed that overcrowding at the jail was a problem that needs a solution. While Guerra and Salinas indicated that expansion at the jail might be that solution, Guerrero said he believed he could bring down the inmate population without expanding.

“I ran a prison, I’m the only candidate who’s actually ran a prison before, and did it successfully,” Guerrero said. “We need to work with what we have. Our budget’s about $49 million, that’s what we need to work with.”

Raul Salinas

Guerrero suggested working on stagnant cases, cross training detention employees and working closely with the courts as methods to reduce the inmate population. He also suggested community outreach as a way to reduce crime and the inmate population.

“Bring the sheriff’s office to the community, so before you commit the crime, you get an education. We educate you on what those problems are. That’s what we need to do. We cannot be throwing your hard earned money going to the problem. It’s not solving it,” he said. “That’s what I ask when I ask for your vote, for the opportunity to reassess, reevaluate, fix the mismanagement of the jail. It’s not that we need a bigger building; we need better management.”

Sheriff Guerra said that overcrowding has been an issue since the jail’s completion in 2003 and that his office is already working with most of the entities Guerrero referenced to fix the problem.

Frank Guerrero

“This is something I have been working on not only with the district attorney’s office, with probation, with the criminal justice system, with all our judges,” he said. “The population in this county continues to grow, and I can tell you that right now we are coming up with ways to overcome this problem that we’ve had, whether it be private partners or municipal partners, but we are working together with our county government for future expansion of the jail.”

Guerra acknowledged the financial impact expansion at the jail would have on the taxpayers and emphasized his commitment to addressing overcrowding with expansion as the last resort.

“Having to compete with a $150 million plus courthouse — to go to the taxpayers and say, ‘Hey, I need $83 million to expand the jail’ — you know, that’s going to be pretty taxing to the Hidalgo County tax payers. I have, again, continued to work with the county government to see if it’s a government/private partnership or a government to government partnership. That’s what we’re working on to come up with some solutions for expanding the jail,” he said. “We want to make sure before we do that that we have tried everything possible to lower the inmate population in the county jail.”

Salinas came out strongly in favor of expansion of the jail, citing safety and financial concerns.

“Definitely we do need a bigger jail. If we have to make a bigger facility, a bigger jail, then we need to make a bigger jail. It’s not cost-effective to go to another county and put them there,” he said.

Salinas said ultimately the decision would be up to county commissioners, but that he believed expansion to be a priority.

“…The burden’s going to fall on the taxpayers, and it’s not sometimes what people want to hear, but the safety of the people comes first and we do need a jail. …If it’s going to cost $83 million or $100 million, we need a jail, bottom line,” he said. “We can work with other governments, we can work with federal grants, we can work whatever we can; bottom line, is the taxpayers are still going to wind up paying for it.”

mwilson@themonitor.com