July 12, 2007
Outsourcing inmates

What happens when our jails get too full? We ship inmates to Louisiana.

Harris County on Friday will begin shipping the first of as many as 400 of its prisoners to a private jail in northeast Louisiana, costing taxpayers up to $4 million over the next six months.

An official with the Harris County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday described the transfer to West Carroll Detention Center in Epps, La., as an "emergency concept" aimed at dealing with a recent seasonal "surge" in the inmate population.

As we know, and as the story mentions, this is a longstanding problem, "surges" notwithstanding.

On July 5, the sheriff's office notified the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that it would need to transfer up to several hundred prisoners in order to maintain compliance.

In a July 9 letter to the sheriff's office, commission executive director Adan Munoz approved of the plan.


As of Wednesday, the Harris County Jail prisoner population was 9,974, according to [Harris County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Mike] Smith.

While the county system's inmate capacity is 9,042, the commission has granted the department, which operates the jail, temporary permission to house up to 1,050 inmates in so-called "variance beds" -- nonstandard metal frame bunks on the floor.

"We didn't want to send 20 here, five here, 10 there, and 13 over there," Smith. "That (becomes) problematic to get them there, and to get them back, and (to know) where they are, and what the rules are there."

"That's what made it an emergency, and that's why (Emerald) was selected," he added.

Emerald was also the lowest-priced facility, according to Smith, who said the county will be charged $38 per day, per inmate for the first 300 prisoners. Smith also anticipates that the entire $4 million approved by the commissioners will be spent.

Smith said the price parallels what it would have cost the county to pay jailers in overtime that would have been necessary for the prisoners to remain in the Harris County Jail.


Smith said all the inmates who will be transferred to Louisiana have been convicted of state jail felonies. He also placed part of the blame for the jail overcrowding on a law that allows judges to sentence state jail felons to a county lockup rather that state-run facilities. Currently more than 1,200 inmates convicted of state jail felonies are housed in the county jail, according to Smith.

Smith also said the jail population could have decreased had Texas Gov. Rick Perry not vetoed a bill that would have allowed bail for technical parole violators. Nearly 500 technical violators -- people who have not committed other crimes -- are housed in the county lockup, Smith said.

The notion that Harris County is housing extra inmates does not please Harris County Pct. 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

"The state dumps on Harris County like we're running a little Alcatraz down here," Radack said. "They pass these laws. Then take people that should be in state facilities and expect the county to take care of it."

While it's true that these are contributing factors, it's also true that the local judiciary deserves a good deal of blame. We really could have a smaller inmate population without any significant risk to the general public, with the bonus of not having to throw away $4 million on stuff like this. Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to change until we have some new blood on the bench around here. At least we'll have a chance to make that happen next year.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 12, 2007 to Crime and Punishment

"At least we'll have a chance to make that happen next year."

Damn sraight, Charles. The judicial races in Harris County were nail-bitingly close in '06. If Dems have a good candidate at the top of the ticket (read: Anybody but Hillary), I think it's VERY possible to see a Dallas style shift in the judicial ranks and in Harris County (Please God make it so) maybe even the District Attorney.

These races IMO are the Dems best chances for local pickups in Houston in 2008. best,

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast on July 13, 2007 7:28 AM