Commissioner Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) accused Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar of compromising the integrity of future jail improvements. Salazar charged that DeBerry was working to privatize the Bexar County jail.

Tensions ran high Tuesday before commissioners approved a contract with the Florida-based American Correctional Consultants. That’s because more than a week ago, Salazar hired his own consultants to study jail operations and make recommendations.

The sheriff explained that he felt compelled to act ahead of commissioners after “a source in the media” told him DeBerry was pitching a story about her efforts to “professionalize the jail.”

Salazar decided that “professionalize” meant “privatize,” he told commissioners.

“I use the word ‘privatize’ the jail,” he said. 

DeBerry dismissed Salazar’s claim, calling it “a grand conspiracy.” Professionalization simply means following other counties’ best practices and hiring professional jail administrators, Deberry said.

“I don’t think I’d ever suggest privatization,” she told the San Antonio Report after commissioners met. 

The jail has long been a point of contention between Salazar and the Bexar County commissioners, although DeBerry has been the most vocal in her criticism of understaffing and other problems at the jail. In July, Salazar agreed to work with commissioners to find a consultant to help improve jail conditions, DeBerry pointed out. Salazar’s own hire would not be truly independent, she argued, a point that the sheriff deputies’ union president Jeremy Payne agreed with.

“Sheriff Salazar hiring his own consultant to evaluate him is like a schoolkid grading his own paper,” he said in a statement before Tuesday’s meeting. “This is a way for the sheriff to avoid full accountability.”

Salazar brought Bill Bryan, president of Detain Inc., the firm Salazar hired for roughly $49,000 using money from the department’s asset forfeiture fund, and assisting consultant Shane Poole to meet commissioners on Tuesday.

Consultant Bill Bryan responds to questions regarding his background.
Bill Bryan of Detain responds to questions regarding his background and experience on jail consulting. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But the exchange between Salazar and DeBerry devolved as soon as discussion over the county staff-recommended jail consultant hire began. DeBerry reiterated concerns over consistent detention deputy vacancies at the jail, while Salazar accused DeBerry of insulting the consultant he hired when she questioned his experience.

Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) also asked Bryan and Keith Neely of American Correctional Consultants, who commissioners hired for nearly $20,000, about their relevant experience. While Neely has not done a comprehensive study of a correctional facility in Texas, he told commissioners he had done so in Florida and Mississippi.

Before Bryan founded Detain in 1990, he was a jail administrator in Bell County. He was also a founding officer of the Texas Jail Association and completed a jail study for Lubbock County earlier this year, Bryan said. Poole, who is helping Bryan with the Bexar County jail consulting project, said he brings 31 years with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

All of the consultants said Tuesday they feel comfortable with Texas jail standards.

Bryan told commissioners his company did not maintain a website as word of mouth was enough for his business. DeBerry was aghast.

“But we live in a digital age,” she said. “So Sheriff, when you talk about professionalization, this is what I’m talking about. I think my comments speak for themselves.”

Salazar bristled at DeBerry’s line of questioning, arguing that Bryan had decades of jail experience in Texas.

“Let me start off by apologizing to Bill Bryan,” Salazar replied. “I did not bring him here to be insulted or belittled because he does not have a commercialized website. His experience speaks for himself.” 

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar at Commissioners Court following the hiring of a consultant to investigate and report on the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar arrives to Commissioners Court Tuesday to defend his decision to hire a jail consultant on his own rather than going through the process with commissioners. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

DeBerry retorted that she was merely asking questions, and pointed out that Salazar’s decision to hire Detain came on the heels of a Texas Public Radio story about someone being jailed for five extra months. Salazar told reporters the same day that story ran that he had contracted with Detain as a consultant.

“It was a hastily called press conference, and then all of a sudden you moved forward and hired a jail consultant,” DeBerry said. “This was never about competition. This is about how do we get better solutions to not just efficiency of the jail, but what’s in the best interest of the taxpayer? … The fact you went out and decided you were going to thumb your nose at us regarding an issue we’re trying to help you with is incredibly, to use your words, insulting.”

Detain’s Bryan and Keith Neely of American Correctional Consultants will both look at ways to attract and retain detention deputies, as the jail’s understaffing problem has led to millions of dollars in overtime pay each year.

Commissioners also approved on Tuesday more than 82,000 hours of overtime for detention deputies, 22,100 of which were worked during the previous fiscal year and 60,143 projected to be worked between Oct. 8 and Dec. 31. The approved overtime hours cost $3.3 million overall, and brought the fiscal year 2021 total of overtime payment to $13.3 million. There are 315 vacancies for jailer positions, though Salazar asserts there are only 178 “true” vacancies without a cadet in training for a spot.

Both Salazar and DeBerry left Tuesday’s meeting with the sense that they had gained some ground. Salazar said he was happy to hear another perspective from Neely, but would retain the services of Bryan at Detain.

“I think the more well-trained, well-versed opinions we can bring to the table, the better,” he told the San Antonio Report.

DeBerry said she was disappointed that commissioners had to take up the item on Tuesday rather than next week as she originally planned, but she felt it was necessary following Salazar’s announcement of his own hire last week.

She noted that having the sheriff’s cooperation with the commissioners’ consultant was important.

“The sheriff was reticent, as was his consultant at first, to work in conjunction with ours. That was very apparent,” she said. “But as we moved through the conversation, the sheriff became more open to working with both consultants, which I would consider a win.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.