Sheriff on lookout for jail safety
By Dave Rogers
For The Record
Commissioners OK’d a budget transfer for the purchase of 10 new security cameras for the Orange County jail Tuesday.
Sheriff Keith Merritt said the expenditure was routine and not in response to two recent hangings in the jail.
“It’s nothing to do with any of the recent events, nothing to do with none of that,” Merritt said after commissioners’ court had wrapped up, of the $1,400 expense that included two vacuum cleaners for the jail.
“We’re updating some of the cameras that no longer work, or that are always going out. And we’re just replacing them with other cameras.”
But Merritt said he was interested in doing everything within his office’s power to suicide-proof the jail.
On Feb. 24, 35-year-old Rose Bonilla of Orange County committed suicide by hanging herself in a cell hours after she’d been arrested for a misdemeanor drug charge.
Less than two months later, on April 6, John Victor Marcotte, 59, of Vidor was found hanging by his neck in the jail infirmary.
Discovery by a nurse making early rounds resulted in Marcotte’s life being saved.
Originally arrested for a bond forfeiture on a DWI arrest, Marcotte was discharged from a Beaumont hospital last week and transferred to the Jefferson County jail.
The sheriff said he had requested an in-person visit by representatives of the Texas Jail Commission in May.
“We have identified three places that we needed to put a camera, that we’re allowed to,” the sheriff said.
“Where this [the hangings] happened in the cell, we’re not allowed to have camera coverage.
“When I have my meeting with the Texas Jail Commission, hopefully in the first week of May, we’re going to physically go back there and I’m going to say, ‘Can I stick a camera right there?’
“And I’m looking for them to tell me yes or no. That’s kind of what this meeting is over.”
Bonilla’s death was the fifth in a little more than five years in the county jail. Merritt is in his ninth year as sheriff and says he plans to retire at the end of 2020, when his third four-year term expires.
According to a source familiar with jail operations, both Bonilla and Marcotte used jail sheets to hang themselves. Marcotte was found with his neck suspended from a waist-high infirmary handrail required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Over the years we’ve identified some blind spots, where there’s nothing on camera,” Merritt said. “And we want to have something on camera, every place that we’re allowed to, that we’re not violating an inmate’s right or something like that.
“The best way I know to do that is get them (Jail Commission representatives) down here. I want to discuss some of the recent events we’ve had.
“I just want to take a few things out that I don’t think are needed that could be points they could utilize to hurt themselves, and I want to get permission to take them out. We can’t just take them out [without permission].
“County court funds the jail, we operate the jail, but we’ve got to go get their blessing [the commission’s] if we go changing the design or take anything out. ADA comes into effect and different things and we’re going to go over a bunch of stuff like that.”
Commissioners conducted a 30-minute workshop before Tuesday’s court session to discuss reducing or eliminating the county’s participation in retiree health insurance benefits for future county employees.
A comparison of nearby counties (Jefferson, Hardin, Newton and Jasper) showed none of them contributed at all to health insurance costs for retirees over 65, while Orange County historically has paid 100 percent for all retirees’ health insurance.
No action was taken on the item during the later commissioners’ court meeting.
An item that took up more than a half hour during the court session was an alteration to the work order on an ongoing $5 million energy efficiency project that expands the scope of the work by Way Services but not the county’s cost.
You can cover more area than where one person’s walking at a time. You’re looking at one monitor and say we have 12 cameras on that monitor, you could just cover a lot of area. And that’s what we’re trying to do.