July 16, 2005
I got those county jail conditions blues

Since Scott is off on a well-deserved blog break, I thought I ought to link to this story on conditions in the Harris County jails, since it touches on several issues he's harped on.

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.

The bill that Whitmire refers to is HB2193. Previous coverage from Grits can be found here, here, and here. With the state prison system near 100% capacity and there being no money or desire to build more prisons, TDCJ has little choice but to rent space from county jails, which is inefficient and puts pressure on the counties themselves. Vetoing HB2193, which would have put in place some needed reforms to the probation system, denied any relief to that pressure.

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.

What in the world is Tommy Thomas doing letting nearly 20% of the jail capacity go unused like that? Overcrowding puts jailers in a much more dangerous position. Why hasn't he asked the County Commissioner's Court for more money to hire more jailers? Harris County has a cash reserve (PDF) of over $234 million for fiscal year 2005-06, with nearly $169 million of it unreserved. The County can afford to pay for its responsibilities, if only it's asked to do so. I have no idea what Sheriff Thomas thinks he's doing, but it doesn't look like a good job to me.

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."

And when the inevitable lawsuits get filed, remember that something could have been done about it but wasn't. What a shame.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 16, 2005 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Well, if anyone could recognize an arrogant fool it would definitely be Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on July 16, 2005 6:55 PM