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If Frank Wing is a ‘dungeon,’ why does Bexar keep people there?

November 17, 2018

The inmates were kicking the doors to their cells.

It was near midnight in early October, and city officials were providing an exclusive glimpse inside the detention center at Frank Wing Municipal Court.

This building on the West Side of downtown is where newly arrested people are booked and processed. It’s the entry point to the criminal justice system. One big depressing sorting center. Bail hearings happen here. So do assessments. Some of the people held at Frank Wing will be released on bond, others will go to jail.

The city’s detention center has been called a “dungeon” and “archaic” by one criminal justice expert, a consultant for Bexar County. It is a disconsolate place. But we were there to better understand a simple question. If the detention center at Frank Wing is so terrible in the eyes of county officials, why were those same county officials holding people there for more than 18 hours?

This had been the agreed upon time between the city and Bexar County to move people out of the detention center, but through August and September, thousands of people had been detained above and beyond the 18-hour mark.

From mid-August when the city began tracking this issue through the first week of October, just before our visit and tour, 4,375 people were detained in Frank Wing for more than 18 hours, city data show. That’s about 36 percent of all arrested people, 12,086, who were brought to the detention center in that time period.

“They are calling it a ‘dungeon,’” Chief William McManus said in an interview in late September. “But they are using it to keep people out of their county jail. They are using it as an annex.”

The overstays raise questions about whether Bexar County has adequate jail space and is doing enough diversion for people who could be released on personal recognizance bonds. Quite simply, the detention center at Frank Wing was never designed to hold people for so long.

McManus was very much our tour guide on that October evening. The detention center had a hectic energy to it. New arrests trickled into the building. Cops milled around the booking area. Some of the group cells were crowded. People slept on metal benches or the floor. The cells were frigid, and many people had balled themselves up to stay warm.

Everyone wanted the chief’s attention. A woman in an observational cell shouted to him across the booking area. Inmates would bang on the plexiglass or kick doors so hard that it periodically sounded like the boom of thunder. Part of Frank Wing might be a detention center, but it’s undeniably a holding area for people with mental health issues.

McManus and other city officials shrugged amid the cacophony. It was a pretty normal night. Not too busy, but not too slow. And plenty jarring.

The concerns about the overstays are myriad — and we have included this in our “Unequal Justice” series because poor defendants are disproportionately part of the criminal justice system, and county officials have said defendants are being given more time to secure bail and avoid jail, a dynamic that reflects the inequities of cash bail.

But most important, there is the question of safety. This is not a jail. It’s not designed to hold people for so long. Meals are trucked over from the Bexar County Adult Detention Center periodically for people who have stayed in the detention center for more than 12 hours. Each group cell comes with a shared toilet. There is no shower. The public defender meets with clients in front of law enforcement.

The facility can hold about 190 people at any given time, but as the number of people in detention stack, crowding strains the system. Inmates are divided by gender as well as offense type. Those accused of nonviolent offenses are kept separate from those accused of violent ones. But when space becomes a premium, that task becomes more challenging. Officials didn’t cite particular safety incidents — there have been two deaths this year at the facility unrelated to this issue — but they did express concern.

From the city’s perspective, the detention center at Frank Wing is an old building, but not a dungeon. It only becomes a dungeon when the county keeps people there for far too long.

Michael Ugarte, the county’s presiding magistrate judge, did not respond to our interview requests by phone or email. We also raised these concerns with Mike Lozito, who heads judicial services for Bexar County. Lozito said the county is not holding people to minimize the jail population. He said many of the overstays are people who are in the process of securing bonds or are undergoing extensive background checks.

No doubt, this happens. But a recent memo about the detention center from Municipal Court Presiding Judge John Bull outlines another side of the issue.

“Individuals are being held in the 401 S. Frio facility that have no chance of bonding out (Remand without bond, Parole violations, child support cases, high level violent offenders, etc,” he wrote. “The 401 facility is being used solely as a County Jail extension.”

On our tour, we observed a filing system where county magistrates were holding commitment orders until the last possible hour.

This is hardly a new issue. When the county assumed magistration duties from the city in 2007, part of the stated rationale was to reduce the jail population.

The idea was to hold people longer so they could either secure bail or plead guilty to avoid jail. A 2007 consultant’s report to the city describes how the county was considering additional space at Frank Wing so defendants “would either raise the necessary bond amount or change their pleas from not guilty to guilty within the 48-72 hour holding period and thus avoid the necessity for a booking in the county jail.”

The county never secured that additional holding space. But Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff echoed this view in an article from the time about the county assuming magistration duties.

Not surprisingly, hold times have increased at Frank Wing from about 10 hours in 2006 to 18 hours or longer this fall (but the jail remains at or near capacity).

That dynamic changed the week of our visit. Bexar County and the city informally agreed to a 12-hour detention timeline, and — voila! — the numbers precipitously dropped.

From Oct. 8 through Oct. 28, 130 people overstayed the 18-hour mark. Our concern is that this improvement might only last as long as there is scrutiny. Besides, even with the better numbers, issues persist.

For example, in a November email to Bexar County Chief Public Defender Michael Young, Bull, the municipal court presiding judge, wrote, “I am still very concerned about the extended holding of (arrested persons) in the back.”

He told the story of a woman who was “arrested for Class B shoplifting, no priors, arrested at 2 p.m. on a Thursday, bond posted at 9 p.m. on Thursday, and she was still waiting to be processed in cell 13 at 10:30 a.m. on Friday. … She had a small child and was still nursing.”

Lozito said this delay was likely due to a state and FBI background check.

The county will open its Justice Intake and Assessment Center in December or January (it was supposed to open in October), marking a potentially significant shift in booking practices here. This new facility will follow the open booking model, meaning as long as people stay calm and orderly, they will wait in an open space, not in a cell.

While Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar told us he has “no concerns” about the new building, city officials have not agreed to participate. They have expressed major concerns about its design, potential cost to the city and how the county’s process could delay officers.

The city, which is responsible for most of the arrests in the county, will continue with Frank Wing. This split will relieve some of the pressure at Frank Wing, but it is also redundant. As for the county, a new building does not necessarily end old practices. Could a person end up detained for hours and hours? Lozito said that shouldn’t happen, but it is possible.

An ideal system would detain defendants in a humane setting, and then move them along quickly, not hold them to tamp down a jail population. An ideal system would judge defendants — who have the right to the presumption of innocence — based on the risk they pose at the pretrial stage to the public, not their ability to scrounge up enough cash to make bail. An ideal system would ensure those defendants who receive personal recognizance bonds have an appropriate level of pretrial services upon release.

But in our system, the county will operate a modern building that city officials say has serious design flaws. Meanwhile, the city will continue to book defendants in an antiquated building that county officials have argued is a dungeon. There is never enough jail space, and people have been held for hours on end before being transferred to jail or even bonding out.

We visited the Frank Wing detention center to understand a simple question: Why were so many people being held for so long at the detention center? Since then, we have been haunted by a more complicated question. One punctuated by those booming kicks on cell doors. Why is it so hard for the city and county to work together on this?

This editorial is part of the Unequal Justice series, which explores the inequities in Bexar County’s criminal justice system and how they can be fixed.

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