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City needs to get out of jail business

January 12, 2019

The detention center at the Frank Wing Municipal Court is a dingy, grimy place long passed over by time.

People huddle in frigid group cells or sleep on the floor near a shared toilet. They wait for bail hearings. They wait to be released or placed in jail. And as they wait, sometimes they kick their cell doors or bang on plexiglass windows.

They are accused of crimes, sometimes awful ones. They can be difficult people, sometimes awful people. They can be frequent flyers moving through the justice system again and again.

It could be tempting, then, to disregard the depressing conditions at Frank Wing. To breathe in the stale air there and say these people don’t deserve anything better than a “dungeon,” as one expert has called it. Except everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Except it’s no place you would ever want your son or daughter, mother or father, friend or loved one to be held. Not for six hours. Not for 18 hours. Not for 15 minutes. When “these people” become “your people,” the conditions at Frank Wing come into moral focus.

Then it becomes clear the detention center at Frank Wing should have closed long ago. Somehow it’s still here. It has endured on the west end of downtown even as Bexar County has opened its own modern Justice Intake and Assessment Center where defendants are also booked. It has stayed open even though city officials know the Frank Wing building is obsolete. Not just old, but in the footprint for University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus expansion.

If the conditions at Frank Wing don’t spark outrage, then this redundancy should. The public should not be paying for two intake centers, and, in turn, two sets of magistrates and detention officers.

The inability of the city and county to partner reflects peak city-county tension and dysfunction. The two sides have squabbled over the new building’s design and concerns about shared costs. There certainly are some real issues to hash out. Who is going to pay for what? How is the county going to create a larger entrance to its new building, and how will it add new DWI stations? How can the county assure city police quickly return to the field after they make an arrest?

All fair questions that should have been answered years ago if the City Council had been involved. But they haven’t been briefed, and they haven’t bothered to learn.

“I think we all could stand to get some education on it,” District 6 City Councilman Greg Brockhouse said. “This is a prime example of staff has too much control.”

His point was that the council and mayor should be making policy decisions, not city staff. And yet staff has turned out the lights on this one, and elected officials can’t seem to find the switch.

“It’s not something that we have been fairly well briefed on,” District 5 City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said.

Gonzales recently toured the county facility, but until then, she said, “I was not even aware of the relationship that we had.”

What?

For years the city has booked people at Frank Wing, and the county has handled magistration. All that could flip with the county’s new building, and the (welcome) prospect of the city taking over magistration there. That is “the relationship.” It involves millions of tax dollars and tens of thousands of people who pass through the system each year.

What does Mayor Ron Nirenberg think of this? With the volatile city charter elections behind him, Nirenberg has said finding a solution is a priority. He has toured both facilities. He knows the issues and the stakes. He expects a deal.

“This is also a matter of public policy priority in terms of how we handle jail diversion and our priorities about who and how people should be locked up,” he said.

When Nirenberg and the City Council took office nearly two years ago, they made some bold statements. They removed a Confederate monument at Travis Park. They endorsed the Paris climate accord.

Those actions were symbolic of broader values. No one’s life changed. But Frank Wing is tangible. Getting out of the jail business and making the county’s new building work — that’s the nitty-gritty of governing. It would benefit so many people.

Prolonged failure, then, is its own symbol. The longer Frank Wing’s detention center endures, the greater a monument it becomes to a lack of political will to make a difference.

jbrodesky@express-news.net

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