July 12, 2023 1001 PM
MARFA — Presidio County Commissioners on Wednesday morning approved an application from the Sheriff’s Office for over $420,000 in border security funds from the state for the upcoming fiscal year — grant money that, if awarded, will go towards increasing the office’s presence in the county and bolstering security at the county jail.
The application will allow the agency to vie for more cash through Operation Lone Star, Governor Greg Abbott’s initiative to ramp up law enforcement along the Texas-Mexico border by funneling billions of dollars in state funds and tens of thousands of personnel into border counties. The Presidio County Sheriff’s Office has been awarded a total of $1,456,333 via the program across the previous two fiscal years, not all of which has been expended.
The office is currently staffed by Sheriff Danny Dominguez, six full-time deputies and two grant-funded deputies paid for by federal program Operation Stonegarden.
But the agency remains underfunded and understaffed, according to a grant application prepared by the office, which argues that additional manpower and equipment is needed to shore up against border crossings and border-related crime.
“Logistics, equipment, and a low number of personnel are constant obstacles when it comes to patrolling the most remote areas of our county,” reads the application.
The agency is requesting a total of $420,454.46 for fiscal year 2024, $87,360 of which would go towards salaries for two additional deputies. The agency argues that additional funding will allow for “enhanced coverage of all routes of transportation leading to, from, and away from the border,” plus coverage of main highways, including 67, 169, 90, 170 and 2810. The agency also plans to increase its presence along the border. These patrols are to be carried out in conjunction with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Most of the remaining funds requested, meanwhile, are earmarked for the county jail in Marfa. The grant application paints a bleak picture of the 112-bed facility, which it says is operating at a limited capacity due to a COVID-era mandate to maintain quarantine space. Dangerous inmates, outdated medical equipment and a lack of robust security are taxing the space’s limited staff, says the agency.
The application references a “near riot” at the facility in August of 2021, which it says was “incited by violent inmates with gang affiliations.”
The Sheriff’s Office is requesting funds to pay for medical equipment to treat inmates and jail employees, citing the considerable distance from the nearest hospital in the remote region. It is also requesting $130,000 for a full-body scanner in order to screen inmates, who are currently either screened via pat-down searches or strip searches, and $100,957 for a mail scanner in order to screen incoming mail for contraband.
The mail scanner would allow jail staff to scan for illicit drugs including fentanyl and suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction, says the application. (The application states that jail staff are at high risk because these drugs can be absorbed through the skin upon contact — an oft-repeated but debunked myth). As it stands, mail is exclusively examined by hand upon entering the jail. Increased security would allow the facility to house more inmates, the agency says. In addition to state prisoners, the jail has been housing federal inmates since late 2022.
Changes to some state immigration laws have led to an uptick in arrests on state charges — prior to September 2021, proof of money changing hands was required in order for state law enforcement to charge someone with human smuggling. With that proof no longer needed, it has become easier to arrest suspects on state charges. At the same time, Abbott upgraded all smuggling charges to felonies.
In light of these changes, the Brewster County Sheriff’s Department last year applied for $5.9 million through Operation Lone Star to double the capacity of its 55-person jail. That application was ultimately rejected due to lack of state funding.