The construction of the first Tarrant County Jail in 1856 was at the center of the Fort Worth vs. Birdville controversy for the County Seat. In 1855-1856, when Fort Worth was attempting to take the County Seat from Birdville, local merchant Ephram Daggett agreed to pay for the construction of the first County Jail in Fort Worth on land donated by Middleton Tate Johnson. Sheriff John B. York is credited with construction of the jail, which was evidently a one room wooden building located at the corner of Jones and Belknap streets in downtown Fort Worth.
The Civil War started an economic downturn, causing a dramatic decline in the population of Tarrant County from 6,000 in 1860 to 1,000 in 1865. Economic growth began again with the famous cattle drives through Fort Worth and the completion of the first railroad in 1876. During this period, Tarrant County experienced significant growth and attracted thousands of new residents. In fact, the District, County and Municipal Courts could not keep up with the growing number of criminal cases in Fort Worth and Tarrant County. After fire destroyed the Tarrant County Courthouse in September 1876, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved a $65,000 bond (with $15,000 designated for the jail) to build a new courthouse and jail.
The new County Jail was completed in May 1877 and was described by local politicians as a “substantial and secure building that would defy all attempts of escape by inmates.”
Unfortunately, Tarrant County did not approve funding for the installation of a newly patented lock system when the County Jail was under construction. When the first prisoners were transferred to the new County Jail on June 15, 1877, they promptly escaped by removing the bolts to the doors and cells with their fingers. As a result of poor construction, numerous escapes occurred from the Tarrant County Jail, the most notable on June 20, 1877 when six hardened criminals, including murderers, escaped. Many of the escapes took place at night despite the fact that the County Jailer lived in a room adjacent to the jail. If the Jailer attempted to stop the escapees, the inmates usually quickly overpowered him. Escapes were so common local newspapers stopped reporting them. Over the next several years, Sheriff J. M. Henderson and three Deputies spent a considerable amount of time tracking and apprehending escaped inmates from the Tarrant County Jail. Tarrant County officials reluctantly admitted the present County Jail provided insufficient security to prevent inmates from escaping. By late 1883, it was obvious the present County Jail also contained inadequate space to house inmates, even if a method could be devised to prevent them from escaping. The Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved a $60,000 bond in late 1883 for construction of a large County Jail facility that would be near the 1877 County Courthouse.
This first permanent jail was built in 1884, directly behind the Old County Courthouse on Belknap Street (north of the Courthouse). The new County Jail was completed in 1884 and by all accounts, it was a magnificent structure. The County Jail building was three stories plus a basement, constructed of brick in a “Victorian” style. The interior doors of the building were steel, the windows and cells had steel bars. The wooden exterior doors had large steel plate coverings. An underground tunnel connected the County Jail and the Courthouse basements, and was used to take prisoners to trial without exposing them to the public or an unsecured area. This innovative feature is practiced in many Jails today. The County held executions at the site jail until the completion of a newer jail built in 1918 at 200 West Belknap. About eight executions were performed in the Old Jail. With the newer jail, escapes, suicides and other problems continued. Citizens of Tarrant County stormed the jail at least twice in attempts to lynch prisoners. In 1914, three companies of the Texas State Guard were called in to disperse a riot.
Some of the more famous individuals locked up in the jail were former Town Marshal Jim “Longhair” Courtright, Bat Masterson, Luke Short and “Deacon” Jim Miller, who was a hired killer as well as a Methodist church deacon.
One convicted murderer, having been made a trusty because he had been a former police officer, just walked down the tunnel, out the Courthouse and was never seen again. From about 1896 to 1915, the Old Jail earned the reputation as an easy escape facility. In 1901, two or three inmates jumped Tarrant County Sheriff’s Jailer/Guard Luke Dillard. Dillard evidently put up a good fight. One of the prisoners kept going back and letting more inmates out of their cells to help overcome Dillard. Finally, with the count at 8 to 1, Dillard was severely beaten but survived. Documents reveal he later became a Fort Worth Police Officer. Four of the escapees ran into the Courthouse, mixed with the crowd before walking out the south doors to freedom. The remaining four inmates got revolvers and started a wild, running gun battle with City and County Officers. They all gave up and were captured when they ran out of bullets.
Escapes by inmates became increasingly common at the County Jail that seemed to age rapidly. In 1902, two men walked to freedom through unlocked doors. In 1904, two more men escaped without difficulty. In 1905, nine men cut their way through a third-floor wall, made ropes from blankets and lowered themselves to the ground while jailers slept. Two of the nine were eventually captured, but the other seven remained at large. Another capital murder suspect used a fire hose to lower himself to the ground in 1912 – he was never captured. The last escape from the Old Jail happened in 1915, when a female inmate dug mortar from between the cell wall bricks with a spoon.
There were 25 escapes in 34 years, and County Commissioners had seen enough. On March 6, 1915, bonds were issued to build another new jail. The new Jail and County Criminal Court building would be seven stories tall, plus basement, designed by architects Sanguinet and Staats. The jail had its’ own power plant in the basement, saving $200-$300 per month. The building also had a heating plant, offices for the Sheriff, District Attorney, medical facilities and separate facilities for over 200 men, women and juveniles. The building at 200 West Belknap and Houston streets was constructed on land that was part of the original fort built by Major Ripley Arnold and his dragoons in 1849. In the following decades, the 1918 County Jail Building was remodeled numerous times to house various government offices.
When Tarrant County moved its’ office to the new County Jail in 1963, the City of Fort Worth leased part of the 200 West Belknap building from Tarrant County for municipal courts, jail space and other offices. The 200 West Belknap building is now home to the Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections Department.
When the new County Jail opened in 1918, prisoners would yell down from the open windows to the sidewalks along Belknap to friends and relatives on visitation days. Contrary to rumors, no executions were ever held in this jail or the Old Courthouse. The last execution held by Tarrant County was held in the recently abandoned old 1884 County Jail as it awaited the wrecking ball.
When the 1918 County Jail was completed, Tarrant County bought the 350 West Belknap property the following year in 1919, for future jail expansion. By 1958, Tarrant County was in need of a new County Jail and Courts Building to relieve prisoner overcrowding and a growing backlog of criminal cases. On December 10, 1959, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved Mr. Easterwood as the architect for the new County Jail. On May 23, 1960, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved expenditures of $3,394,842 (plus a $152,767 architect fee) for the proposed new County Jail building. As the new building was being constructed, additional jail space and other items were added, which increased the overall cost of the new County Jail at 300 West Belknap.
The new County Jail was officially accepted by Tarrant County on March 4, 1963. It wasn’t until May 1, 1963 when employees and inmates began moving to the new facility. The County Jail was 11 stories tall and could house up to 600 inmates on floors 5 through 10, with floor 11 containing a large, modern kitchen to feed the prisoners and jailers. Floors 1 through 4 contained various County courts and offices.
The basement of the 300 Belknap County Jail housed almost all of the offices for the Sheriff’s Office.
During the 1980’s, the 300 West Belknap County Jail experienced explosive growth in inmate population from 600 inmates in the early 1980’s to over 3,000 inmates by 1990 due to the soaring crime rate and a backlog of prisoners sentenced to the Texas State Prison system. Again, the Tarrant County Jail quickly became inadequate to meet the needs of Tarrant County as inmate overcrowding became a serious problem.
Tarrant County and the City of Fort Worth agreed in the early 1980’s to have one central jail system in downtown Fort Worth instead of two operated by each agency. This unique arrangement saved Tarrant County and Fort Worth taxpayers money by having prisoners from the City of Fort Worth directly booked into the Tarrant County Jail. When the new Fort Worth Police Department Building was constructed in 1981-1982 at 350 West Belknap, it was located adjacent to the Tarrant County Jail at 300 West Belknap.
Three floors of the new Fort Worth Police Department Building would house over 400 inmates as part of the Tarrant County Jail Belknap facility, under the supervision of the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office. An enclosed crosswalk attached the two buildings on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors above the ground. The eighth floor of the 350 West Belknap building contained a small gym for inmate recreation. The addition of jail space at 350 West Belknap was a welcome, but temporary relief to the problem of inmate overcrowding at the Tarrant County Jail. Due to the explosive growth in population, as well as the crime rate, County officials realized in the early 1980’s that Tarrant County needed a large criminal courts building and a large County Jail to meet the criminal justice needs of Tarrant County. Tarrant County received voter approval in the early 1980’s for the construction of a nine story Courts Building at 401 West Belknap and the current thirteen story state-of-the-art jail at 100 North Lamar Street. However, it would be several years before the proposed jail could be completed.
The Tarrant County Jail at 300 West Belknap could no longer handle the influx of prisoners by 1986. It was at this time that Tarrant County purchased and utilized an old elementary school on Cold Springs Road for minimum-security prisoners. Over the next eight years, modifications would be made to the Cold Springs facility to increase the number of bunks to house inmates. Once the facility was full, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved the construction of several barrack-type buildings at Cold Springs. In February 1989, the County Commissioners agreed to spend $305,000 on the construction of four barrack-type buildings at Cold Springs to house 168 inmates. At the height of jail overcrowding in Tarrant County, the Cold Springs facility housed approximately 600 inmates in the main facility and six barracks located on the grounds.
The Texas Department of Corrections began to take custody of an estimated 2,200 State prisoners in the Tarrant County Jail during 1994-1995. Once the backlog of state prisoners was eliminated from the Tarrant County Jail, the Cold Springs Jail facility was no longer needed and detention staff was assigned to other County Jail facilities.
However, the main facility was still used by Tarrant County for storage, and the Sheriff’s Office Labor Detail Program expanded its operations by relocating to the barracks on the grounds of the Cold Springs facility. The function of the Sheriff’s Office Labor Detail Program allows misdemeanor defendants to perform community service hours as an alternative to being in jail. With the prospect of jail overcrowding occurring again in the near future, Tarrant County made major renovations in the late 1990’s to the main Cold Springs building so it could be activated as a 384 bed jail whenever it was needed on short notice. In 2003, the Cold Springs Jail facility was once again prepared to receive an estimated 200 inmates to alleviate overcrowding in the various Tarrant County Jail facilities. The addition of the Cold Springs Jail facility was still not enough to meet the increase in inmate population in the late 1980’s. Due to lack of jail space, the Tarrant County Jail was frequently closed to new inmates; which caused a backlog in local municipal jail facilities. In addition, this also caused local leaders to devise drastic measures to relieve the overcrowding problem. The City of Fort Worth housed some inmates in wire cages located on the fourth floor of the Fort Worth Police Administration Building (350 West Belknap). Several prominent individuals advocated placing inmates in “tent” cities guarded by Sheriff’s Deputies with machine guns. One judge even wanted the Governor of Texas to call out the Texas National Guard to guard inmates. Tarrant County officials looked at the prospect of housing inmates at the Mueller Building, which was adjacent to the new County Jail under construction, and the Tarrant County Convention Center. Both of these ideas were later dismissed.
Tarrant County officials soon sought vacant warehouse space near downtown Fort Worth that could be quickly converted to a maximum-security jail to house sentenced state prisoners. After reviewing several warehouses, Tarrant County purchased a warehouse from Green Bay Packaging, Inc. located at 5136 Northeast Parkway in May 1989 for an estimated $900,000. This building was ideal because it was a large, vacant space that could quickly be renovated to house maximum-security inmates.
In addition, this location had sufficient office space to handle several other offices of the Sheriff, especially the Patrol Division, which no longer fit into the cramped basement of 300 West Belknap Street. Within a year, over 400 inmates were housed at the Green Bay Jail facility in modular cells. The Green Bay facility located at 5136 N.E. Parkway, contained medical and recreational facilities for inmates as well as a small kitchen to heat food. In the early 1990s, the Green Bay Jail facility was expanded to house an additional 600 inmates, thereby relieving overcrowding in the other three County Jail facilities.Tarrant County voters approved a bond package in 1998 that included a new courthouse for family law courts, as well as an expansion of the Green Bay Jail by several hundred beds.
In 2007, a third expansion of Green Bay was complete which gave us a total of 1596 beds. The address changed to 2500 Urdan Drive and North Patrol moved to another location. The adding of more inmates to the Belknap Jail facility, the expansion of the Cold Springs Jail facility and the purchase/expansion of the Green Bay Jail facility helped the overcrowding issue, but it was still problematic. All of Tarrant County was awaiting the completion of the new 1,440 bed Tarrant County Jail facility, the Tarrant County Corrections Center, at 100 North Lamar. The completion of this new facility was plagued by delays, cost overruns and needed certification from the Texas State Commission on Jail Standards.
The Tarrant County Corrections Center was finally completed in September 1991 as the first City/County Jail in Tarrant County history. The first inmates were transferred to the Tarrant County Corrections Center on September 27, 1991 amid tight security, but an inmate escaped a few days later during the transfer process. The Tarrant County Corrections Center had a final estimated price tag of $52 million, and it had been designed as an innovative maximum-security facility. The spacious, modern fourteen floor structure was built with a “then emerging” detention concept called “Direct Inmate Supervision”. The concept involved pods containing a large common area, or dayroom, connected to an exercise area. Individual cells or rooms for the inmates were contained in the pods. Forty-eight inmates were in each pod with one detention officer, who oversaw all functions of the inmates within the given pod. Two pods shared a small recreational area where inmates could play basketball. A Central Security Office, where Deputies monitored hundreds of television cameras, controlled the movement of officers and inmates in the facility.
Inmates arrived or departed the Tarrant County Corrections Center through a large, secured garage adjacent to the Jail Booking area. In addition, inmates could be transferred in a secure underground tunnel between the new Tarrant County Justice Center and the Belknap Jail facility. Tarrant County started in the early 1850’s with one jail facility, growing to four jail facilities by 1991.
When the Tarrant County Corrections Center opened in 1991, it still did not provide enough jail space to eliminate overcrowding at the Tarrant County Jail. By 1993-1994, the Tarrant County Jail held an all-time high of 5,200 inmates. Housing for this many inmates was only accomplished by increasing the number of bunks at the various jail facilities above the approved capacity level, as well as placing inmates on the floors in many of the jail cells. Fortunately, the Texas Department of Corrections opened new prison facilities in the mid-1990’s, and the Tarrant County Jail population was reduced to an average of 2,700 to 3,000 inmates a day by 1996. Officials from Tarrant County and the Sheriff’s Office recognize the need for a new maximum-security facility for violent offenders. In addition, the growing population of Tarrant County will naturally require additional jail space for an increasing number of criminal.
Construction began at 600 West Weatherford, in April 2010 and in October 2012; Tarrant County received certification on the Lon Evans Correction Center, a 207,700 sq. ft., 5 story maximum security facility. This facility is classified by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Leader in Energy Environment Design (LEED) as a gold certified facility. A gold certification, the USGBC’s second highest certification, was awarded for the efficient use of energy, water and material.