Noting that almost 1,300 inmates are sleeping on mattresses on the floors while large sections of the jail sit empty because of a guard shortage, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has decertified Harris County's lockup for the second year in a row.
While the action does not mean the jail could be closed anytime soon, the commission's executive director says county officials must show they are working to remedy the problem or they may be called onto the carpet.
County officials aren't in the mood for a scolding, however.
Calling the panel "a bunch of arrogant fools," Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack said Friday that the Texas prison system helped cause the problem by failing to take inmates off the hands of Harris and other counties on schedule.
"The state wants to send a proctologist down here to see what the problem is. And the problem is, (state officials) are the ones that have stacked up the system," Radack said. "If the state of Texas got its prisoners out of our jails and kept them themselves, we wouldn't have all these problems."
But commission Executive Director Terry Julian maintains that the problem lies with Harris County.
"They need to get adequate staff in there so that they spread those inmates out," he said, noting that some inmates sleep next to toilets and there is not enough room in the dining areas for all inmates to eat at tables.
Harris County is far from alone in being cited by the commission, which oversees 265 county-level detention facilities. Currently, jails in 40 counties are listed as noncompliant, largely because of staffing and safety concerns.
Radack and others maintained, however, that the failing of the state prison system has caused the problem here and in other counties.
"The state's not taking its prisoners," said Sheriff Tommy Thomas. "And that's not just here; it's statewide."
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied that.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, expressed concern this week about a possible return to overcrowding in state prisons and county jails.
Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, noted that TDCJ recently leased space for 300 inmates to deal with its expanding population. He also voiced disappointment about Gov. Rick Perry's recent veto of Whitmire's legislation that would have lowered mandatory probation terms from 10 years to five — a measure that Whitmire said would have reduced the prison population.
Of the 77,000 offenders who entered prison in fiscal 2004, 11,311 were incarcerated because of parole violations and 24,490 because of probation infractions, prison officials told lawmakers.
There's still a question to be answered here, though, which is why in the world is there a guard shortage in Harris County?
In January, nearly 500 of the more than 8,000 inmates in the Harris County Jail system were former state prison inmates picked up for such parole violations as missing a meeting, a county jail official has said. On Friday, the system had 9,127 prisoners, records showed.
The Harris County Jail has a total capacity of 9,372 inmates in four downtown facilities. But the county has closed almost 1,600 jail beds, including two floors at its 1200 Baker Street facility, because of a staffing shortage, according to the commission report.
Thomas, the sheriff, conceded that the county doesn't have enough jailers to deal with its prisoner population.
He also acknowledged that he has not asked county commissioners for money to hire more jailers but said he now believes he must.
However, a deputies union official said jailers already are being forced to work overtime.
"We have deputies complaining that they can't get time off," said Sgt. Humberto Barrera, vice president of the Harris County Deputies Organization.
Meanwhile Friday, an American Civil Liberties Union official charged that no one is dealing seriously with Harris County's problem.
"Harris County needs to step up and address this issue," said Alison Brock, director of the Prison and Jail Accountability Project for the ACLU of Texas. "People are worried about the situation getting back into crisis mode. But you know what? It's already in crisis mode."