Heavy equipment and hard-hatted workers move in chaotic harmony inside the chain link fence of the downtown jail renovation and construction site.
Inside, electricians bend pipe for new wiring to replace decades-old bundles of wires keeping the lights on and the doors locked. Outside, a bulldozer and a compactor move and pack dirt as crews continue working on what is steadily
transforming into the base of the six-story 87,000 square-foot expansion of the Smith County central jail.
County commissioners, other county officials and project leaders toured the construction site Tuesday to observe progress.
Halden Talley, of HDR, the principal architect on the project, said the jail expansion poses difficulties not found on other construction sites.
The central jail is still in operation seven days a week. People arrested around the county still enter the sally port, which will transition into a new booking area over the next year.
Security and public safety remains paramount.
For now, work is limited to the "free side" of the jail's cinder block and concrete walls, he said. But the project is driven by timetables that will allow workers to tie the free side with the sections locked down.
"It's unique to detention facilities, but it's just the nature of this kind of project," he said. "We've got experienced contractors with knowledge and expertise with these type projects and the sheriff's office, the contractors and (the Texas Commission on Jail Standards) are in constant communication regarding the plan."
The jail construction and renovation project is managed by two firms. Turner Construction, a national company, has extensive experience building jails, while HGR Construction brings a local contracting component to the table. HGR has done renovation work at several county facilities including the courthouse.
Talley and Commissioner Jeff Warr directed the group as it toured the jail, pointing out floor plan transitions and explaining how the space will be used to create a uniform flow for those arrested to move in-and-out of the jail.
Warr, who took office in 2009, spearheaded the $33 million bond package plan that eventually emerged as an acceptable alternative to past bonds. In a past interview, Warr said he "learned more about jails than any person should ever know" during his first two years in office as he examined past bond failures and alternatives to prepare a bond package voters could support.
"It's exciting to see progress," he said. "It's taken a lot of work to get to this point, and it will take a lot more to get to the end, but all those efforts will produce a real asset for the community."
When completed, the project will add 384 jail beds, increasing its inmate capacity to 1,139. But just as important as the added capacity, Warr said the layout changes would bring efficiencies that create a safer, more secure environment for staff and inmates.
The county began work in January 2012 on the first leg of the project, which included moving the central downtown jail's kitchen, laundry and video visitation to the Low Risk Facility north of Loop 323 and U.S. Highway 69. That phase was finished almost a year later.
Phase 1 of the downtown project includes transitioning the now-empty kitchen into a prisoner infirmary for day-to-day medical needs and an attorney visitation area. It is expected to be complete by January 2014. The entire project is expected to be completed by late 2014.
Construction crews already have displaced 8,500 yards of dirt to dig the pit that will become the building's foundation. Crews have poured 1,000 cubic yards of concrete and will use 7,000 cubic yards of concrete by the projects end.
Talley said the raising of the crane was a major milestone for the project. Once the support piles are complete, the building will begin to go up, he said.
County Judge Joel Baker said the project will have a continued impact on downtown but that long-term the finished product will enhance security, staff safety and the physical appearance of the building.
"It not only adds needed space that will serve the community for decades but it improves the facility's layout and flow and the aesthetics are an added benefit," he said. "When it's done I think most people will see it and it won't stand out as a jail."