The Feds inspect the jails

It’s inspection time for the Harris County jails.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday launched what is expected to be a five-day inspection of the Harris County Jail facilities downtown, part of a federal probe to determine whether the jail is operating under lawful conditions.

While federal authorities have declined to say what specifically prompted their investigation, the Harris County Jail has come under scrutiny in recent months for inmate deaths.

The facility has also been criticized for overcrowding, poor sanitation and questionable access to medical treatment and prescription drugs.

Though the state inspects the county jail each April, this marks the first time federal authorities have toured the facilities, said Chief Deputy Mike Smith, who supervises detention operations for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

“To my knowledge, they’ve never done an inspection of us,” Smith said Tuesday.

No, but we knew back in March that they’d be coming, thanks to the continued high level of inmate deaths at the jails. The jails passed the state inspection back in April, though the jails have failed to meet state standards because of prisoner crowding several times in recent years. (I’m pointing to the Google cache of my posts on these topics because my archives are currently in a state of transition.)

Federal authorities conducted a similar investigation and inspection of the Dallas County Jail, which exposed deficiencies in that facility’s environmental conditions and its medical and mental health care.

The inspection team, consisting of around nine people, told the Harris County Sheriff’s Office they would be on site through Saturday, Smith said.

They will inspect all facets of detention operations, including the jails at 1200 Baker, 1307 Baker, 701 San Jacinto, 711 San Jacinto, and the booking-processing center at 1201 Commerce.


If the investigation finds violations, federal officials will suggest ways to improve jail conditions.

If those recommendations are not met, however, federal law allows the attorney general to sue the county.

And that’s where things would get very interesting. As I said before, it’s hard to imagine we could have had this problem for so long without there being some kind of code violations. I just hope that whatever improvements that need to be made are already in progress, and that we don’t have to be forced, kicking and screaming, into doing the right thing.

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