Photo: Michelle Iracheta / Michelle Iracheta
Fort Bend County sheriff’s Capt. Cheryl Hillegeist smiled as she greeted a fellow corrections officer while walking past the holding cells in the jail. Another officer, who’d just filed a report on female suspect he’d arrested earlier, turned to Hillegeist, embraced her and cracked a joke.
“Twenty-seven years of that,” Hillegeist said, as she and the officer laughed.
BREAKING NEWS UPDATES: Get your Houston breaking news alerts, delivered to your inbox
The 57-year-old detention division captain who’s responsible for inmate processing and jail compliance has been a staple at the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office Detention Facility for more than 20 years, a career that began in the mid-‘80s at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice – known then as the Texas Department of Corrections.
HOUSTONCHRONICLE.COM: As jail population falls, Harris County extends inmate outsourcing contract as precaution
She’s known to everyone in the jail -officers and inmates alike – and they often greet her as she strides through the halls examining details of the jail with her hawk-like gaze, looking for anything out place.
“Why is this here?” Hillegeist asked an officer, pointing to a brown paper bag that’s been left in the waiting area.
Four years ago, Hillegeist became the first female to serve as captain in the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office after Sheriff Troy Nehls promoted her.
“It’s an honor,” Hillegeist said. “It’s always an honor to have been thought highly enough to have this position, because this is not an easy position. I grew up in this environment. I came into this environment when I was 22 years old.”
In the 21 years Hillegeist has been at the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office Detention Center, she’s worked under two separate sheriff administrations, including Nehls’ predecessor, Milton Wright who retired in 2012. It was under Wright’s tenure that a second tower was added to the jail to help ease the demand on beds.
The additional tower increased the number of beds from roughly 600 to close to 1,800, said James Hines, Detention Bureau commander.
The towers are connected by what the officers call a “bridge” that sits between the west and east tower, which are eight and six floors, respectively, Hillegeist said.
The jail averages an inmate population of roughly 800, Hines said, noting that the average includes inmates held for other counties and those of federal authorities. The jail administration always maintains a ratio of 1-to-48 officers to inmates.
On any given day, support staff and inmates will cook between 1,100 to 1,300 meals three times a day to feed the inmates, Hillegeist said.
But one of most important changes in recent years has to do with the increase in the number of vocational and educational programs available for inmates, Hillegeist said.
Deputy Gerald Wells oversees the programs for inmates, which include HVAC, welding, a GED class and an intro to computer class.
Next month on May 7, the jail will launch an office skills classed aimed at female inmates, Wells said.
One of the biggest hurdles in initiating the class was the lack of female inmates interested in taking it, Wells added.
“That was a real struggle,” he said. The class, which is meant for nine inmates, originally had only three sign up, he said.
In the coming year, jail administrators hope to add a horticulture class and a greenhouse for inmates who might be interested, Hines said.
Jail programs are sponsored by community nonprofits and local religious groups interested in working with inmates, Wells said.
The detention center has also been a leader in technology, Hillegeist said.
Earlier this year, inmates began using tablets to communicate with their families, order from commissary, read books, listen to podcasts or music and take online video classes.
Through a partnership with Securus Technologies, the Fort Bend County Sheriff Detention Center began piloting the personal tablets to its inmates, who must provide a voice print to the company to gain access to the mobile device, said Sgt. Bill Pailes.
Inmates are then able to lease the devices for $5 a month, he said.
Pailes said inmates also have access to recently installed video visitation terminals, a new feature at the jail that has eliminated most face-to-face visitation. Defense attorneys and families are still able to meet with inmates with prior notice to jail staff.
Hines said the newly installed terminals and tablets are safer, easy to use and allow for families to visit with inmates more often. It also reduces the amount contraband brought into the jail, he added.
“It helps with their mental health,” Hillegeist said. “Jail can be such a lonely, isolating place.”
Pailes said the jail is looking into testing digital mail, where inmate mail will be electronically scanned at a third-party facility, digitized and made available to inmates via their leased tablets.
It’s just one more way that the jail can maintain staying “sparkling clean,” Hillegeist said.
“That’s the one thing we hear all the time, is that we’re the cleanest jail anyone’s ever been to,” she said.
NEWS WHEN YOU NEED IT: Text CHRON to 77453 to receive breaking news alerts by text message | Sign up for breaking news alerts delivered to your email here.
- [LLODO] Philadelphia boy, 12, fatally shot through door while answering knock
- [LLODO] Thanksgiving weather — what to expect
- [LLODO] Coast Guard searches for 4-member crew of fishing boat that sank off Massachusetts coast
- [LLODO] This Day in History: Nov. 23
- [LLODO] Florida deputies release bodycam video after officer shot, suspect killed during chase
- [LLODO] Florida man saves dog from alligator, smokes cigar the whole time
- [LLODO] NYC police upping patrol amid uptick in ‘subway shove’ incidents, shootings
- [LLODO] FBI investigating threats against Georgia election officials amid voter fraud allegations: reports
- [LLODO] AMERICA TOGETHER: Florida teen fixes American flags for local businesses