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Texas Commission on Jail Standards

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.

Let’s fix the Sandra Bland Act

Let’s make it what it was supposed to have been in the first place.

Sandra Bland

After Sandra Bland’s death in a rural Texas jail drew outrage across the nation, two Texas lawmakers filed a comprehensive bill to address racial profiling during traffic stops, ban police from stopping drivers on a traffic violation as a pretext to investigate other potential crimes, limit police searches of vehicles and other jail and policing reforms.

But by the time the Legislature passed it, most of the sweeping provisions related to policing had been stripped out.

Now, on the heels of the death of George Floyd, those lawmakers say they’re determined to try again to push those reforms through when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021.

State Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, both Houston Democrats who chair relevant committees in their respective chambers, said in a joint news release Tuesday they would continue to work together on criminal justice reform efforts next year. Whitmire’s chief of staff and Coleman confirmed to The Texas Tribune that they will begin with pushing again for measures they hoped to achieve with the 2017 law — like investigations into racial profiling and officer consequences. Many provisions were removed from the bill after law enforcement opposition.

[…]

Coleman told the Tribune on Tuesday that he and Whitmire will start with filing legislation that was removed from the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, such as measures to increase the standards by which law enforcement can stop and search a vehicle and ban law enforcement from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations to allow an officer to look into other suspicions. Coleman said they will also look at filing measures related to what constituents are asking for in the wake of Floyd’s death, “specifically getting rid of choke holds” and ensuring that, “if a peace officer is standing around watching their colleague do something wrong, that they must intervene.”

See here for some background. The Chron adds some details.

Lawmakers in 2019 tried to revive the limitation on arrests but faced steep opposition from police unions and lost support from some Democrats who disagreed with parts of its language that they felt gave police too much discretion.

This time around, however, Gov. Greg Abbott is already speaking publicly in support of legislation that would prevent a death like Floyd’s from happening in Texas, which he called a “horrific act of police brutality” in a news conference Tuesday.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who authored the Sandra Bland Act, was listening.

“When Sandra Bland happened, we didn’t have Gov. Abbott coming out and saying that this was appalling,” said Coleman, a member of the newly formed bipartisan House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “We do on this case. Across the country, people who ordinarily would not side with the protesters in terms of what happened, they are. We have peace officers kneeling with protesters saying enough is enough. … That’s the great thing about life. Things can evolve.”

[…]

The Sandra Bland Act has already seen some early success: According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the number of annual suicides declined by 50 percent from 35 in 2015 to 17 in 2018 after the implementation of new standards for mentally ill inmates and independent investigations of jail deaths

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said he also hopes to bring back discussion of the misdemeanor arrest restrictions missing from the Bland Act, as well as reforms of grand juries and the death penalty.

“It’s just a nightmare scenario with not only Mr. Floyd’s death but all of the stories — they’ve got to compel us not just to say the right things but to do the right things,” Leach said. “So, yes, my hope is that we will come together quickly and act, and I think you’re going to see the House and Senate do that next session.”

Other reforms lawmakers’ said they’d like to revisit in 2021 include deeper training on racial bias, stronger laws to prevent racial profiling in arrests and, like the Blands, ending “pretext stops.”

[…]

The fiercest political opposition has tended to come from police unions, including the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, better known as CLEAT.

Last session, the group fought the measure blocking arrests for class C, low-level misdemeanors because of a concern about taking away officer discretion.

It also opposed a bill written by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would have made more records regarding in-custody death public. The police union said it was concerned that alleged misconduct would become public before the completion of an investigation.

After a bitter fight, the group declined to meet with Moody and certain other lawmakers.

“There’s a philosophical shift that we have to undertake next session,” Moody said. “Being told that we can’t even have a conversation about it, that is a nonstarter. We are going to have a conversation about this. … So while some cop lobbyist in Austin says we’re not allowed to talk about it, it’s not his decision to make. It’s our decision to make, and we have to get to work on this in a real way.”

There’s lots of things the Lege could do, and this all sounds like a good start. Overcoming opposition from law enforcement will be the main challenge. The head guy at CLEAT says they’re willing to talk to anyone speaking “in good faith”, and you can take that as you see fit. As I see it, they’re welcome to sit at our table if they have something constructive to offer, but no one has to go sit at theirs if they don’t want to. This session looks like the best opportunity to take positive action. Let’s keep that momentum going.

UPDATE: Well, what do you know?

In the first statewide policy change since George Floyd’s death shook the nation, the Texas agency that regulates police has agreed to add implicit bias training to a course required for every officer, upon the request of Houston Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman.

The requirement was one that had been included in an early iteration, but not the final version, of the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, which requires all officers to take de-escalation training.

This time, Coleman went a different route and simply asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement if it would make the change administratively as opposed to waiting for new legislation. To his delight, the commission responded a day later that it would adopt the policy.

Coleman said he will work with the agency on crafting and finalizing curriculum, but the purpose will be to train officers about the possibility that they may be unconsciously carrying preconceived notions or prejudices that can affect their actions on the job.

“It does what the public is asking for,” Coleman said. “When a police officer doesn’t understand that they have this bias, the only way to change it is for them to recognize that they have a bias that may be a racial bias.

“When people say, ‘How do you change how people think?’ This is how you change how people think.”

Who knew it could be that easy? May the rest of it be the same.

Sandra Bland’s death ruled a suicide

That’s only part of this tragic story.

Sandra Bland

Waller County prosecutors said Thursday that a preliminary autopsy found that Sandra Bland committed suicide, but they pledged to continue investigating the circumstances surrounding her controversial arrest by a state trooper as well as her death in a county jail cell.

“The pathological findings … conclude that the cause of death was hanging and the manner of death was a suicide,” Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam said at a news conference focused on the forensic findings so far. “The evidence that we’ve reviewed up to this point supports those findings … However this is an ongoing investigation.”

Prosecutors also confirmed that a screening test had revealed marijuana in the system of the 28-year-old Bland at the time of her death on July 13, and a catalogue of injuries that included some 30 healing cuts on her forearm that may have been self-inflicted two to four weeks before she died.

But Diepraam repeatedly stressed that none of the injuries found on Bland’s body was consistent with a struggle. Some relatives have disputed the notion that Bland committed suicide, a death that occurred against the backdrop of a growing national movement to end police violence against African-Americans.

“At this particular time, I have not seen any evidence that indicates this was a homicide,” Diepraam said.

After the district attorney’s office released details from the autopsy report, the sheriff’s office in the rural county west of Houston released its own statement, which said that Bland had never been placed on suicide watch. The sheriff’s office on Wednesday released intake forms showing that Bland had told police after her arrest that she had attempted suicide in 2014 with pills following a miscarriage and that she had previously struggled with depression.

At Thursday’s news conference, District Attorney Elton Mathis generally steered clear of discussing the jail’s handling of Bland. But asked by CNN a day earlier if the sheriff’s office should have taken more precautions, he said, “It does appear she indicated to the sheriff’s office she’d tried to kill herself at least once. From a commonsense standpoint, I would think that would be something that would of course be important by jail commission standards when assessing inmates for potential care once they come under the control of the jail.”

You can find a copy of the autopsy report here. Sandra Bland’s family is pursuing its own postmortem, and we’ll see what comes of that. Whatever the case, let’s be clear about a few things.

Sandra Bland should never have been in jail in the first place.

As the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest makes its way into homes and offices around the country, people are aghast that the failure to use a turn signal led to a woman’s arrest and, ultimately, her death by what officials have identified as suicide. People want to know if the officer’s actions—asking that Bland put out her cigarette and demanding that she step out of her car—were legal. But that’s the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking whether it was good policing.

As a former police officer, and now as a legal scholar who studies policing, I know the law is not a moral compass. An officer’s actions can be entirely lawful, and yet fail to meet the high standards that we should expect from our law enforcement professionals, our community guardians. When we focus on whether the police acted lawfully, we are missing the chance to ask whether they acted appropriately. As I watch the dash camera video of the traffic stop, I can’t help but think of the distinction between lawful policing and rightful policing.

[…]

It is right here that Encinia has an opportunity to alleviate some of the tension of the encounter. He could, for example, thank her for moving out of the way, but explain how important signaling is, especially near an intersection. He could let her know that he has written her a warning, not a ticket (a fact that does not become clear until much later in the encounter). He could try to connect with her on a personal level, perhaps by telling her that he’d hate to welcome her to Texas with a traffic ticket.

In short, he has a chance to engage with Bland in a way that reduces antagonism and builds goodwill. It isn’t hard, and can be summed up in three words: Receive, respect, respond. Receive what someone is telling you, respect their position, and respond appropriately.

But he doesn’t. Instead, Encinia is silent. A couple of seconds pass. Then he says, “Are you done?” Those three short words send a powerful signal: “What you said does not matter.” This is the first failure in this encounter. It is not a legal failure—there is no law that requires officers to meaningfully engage with people—but it is a failure nonetheless. It is a missed opportunity for good policing.

As you know, I agree with that assessment.

But let’s say you think the officer’s conduct was acceptable and the arrest was justified. In that case, Sandra Bland should not have been in jail for as long as she was.

The reason Sandra Bland was still in jail three days after being arrested was that she hadn’t posted the $5,000 bond that had been set for her by a Waller County, Texas judge. Posting that bond would have required Bland to come up with $500—10 percent of the full sum—in exchange for her freedom. According to a lawyer for the Bland family, they were working on securing the necessary funds when Bland was found dead in her cell on the morning of July 13.

If Bland had been able to pay her bail on the spot, she would have been released immediately following her arraignment, which took place on Saturday, July 11, the day after she was pulled over on a traffic violation and detained for allegedly assaulting a police officer. A representative for the Waller County Sheriff’s Office told me they could have processed Bland’s bail at any time Saturday or Sunday.

The point of bail is to make sure that someone who has been accused of a crime appears in court when the time comes for a judge to hear her case. The money acts as an insurance policy for the judicial system: If you show up for your court date, the money is returned to you. If you don’t appear, you have to pay the court the full amount of your bond. How much you’re required to pay in bail up front is supposed to be based on whether a judge or a magistrate considers a defendant a flight risk, and whether he believes the defendant to be dangerous.

In practice, the bail system is particularly hard on poor people, who frequently get stuck behind bars because they can’t afford to post bond, while those with greater means pay their bail and go home. According to one study, five out of six people in jail are there because they could not afford to pay their bail.

That’s a problem in a lot of jails, including and especially Harris County, where we continue to tolerate judges who lock up scads of people who haven’t been convicted of anything and aren’t a danger to anyone. It’s a nationwide problem, which we’re just beginning to talk about.

But suppose you think that $5K was a reasonable bail for the charge in question. In that case, we come back to the failure of oversight at the jail, which is a problem not just for Waller County.

When Sandra Bland was booked at the Waller County Jail, she told the staff she had attempted suicide before — a staff, it turns out, who had not been sufficiently trained on how to safeguard the well-being of inmates who are mentally ill, suicidal or pose a risk to themselves.

Three days later, the 28-year-old was found dead in her cell — an apparent suicide, according to a Harris County autopsy. Now, mental health watchdogs and advocates for criminal justice reform are sounding the alarm, saying Bland’s case spotlights deficiencies in jail monitoring and oversight that can sometimes have deadly consequences.

Had Bland’s jailers followed through on mental health training and complied with minimum state standards for inmate monitoring — including checking on her at least once an hour — they might have been better prepared to prevent her apparent suicide, mental heath advocates and criminal justice experts said. But they said the lack of sufficient mental health training for jail staff is widespread in Texas.

With an annual budget of about $1 million, the watchdog agency that sets standards for the state’s disparate network of 244 county and private jails employs four people to inspect those local lockups each year, and one inspector to respond to inmate complaints. The agency is chronically underfunded and understaffed, experts say, meaning citations for jails found out of compliance often come only after a tragedy.

The commission’s annual budget is, in many cases, one-third those of comparable agencies in other large states, The Texas Tribune has found. Its much smaller staff of inspectors, until recently, had to share motel rooms because of a limited travel budget.

“I think any advocate would tell you that the jail commission is not adequately resourced to do the kind of preventative inspections that we would like for them to do,” said Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas.

The great irony here is that Texas is actually exceptional for having such a commission in the first place – most states don’t. It just doesn’t have the resources it needs to do the job, and as we’ve already discussed, that job is made harder by the presence of so many people who shouldn’t be in jail in the first place.

The system failed Sandra Bland in a lot of ways, and I haven’t even touched on any of the racial aspects of her case. I’ll leave you to find writers who are smarter and better informed than I am to tackle that subject, which deserves all the attention it’s getting. There are many things we must do to prevent future tragedies like Sandra Bland’s and ensure that we live up to our own ideals about everyone being equal. I’m just highlighting a few of the obvious ones.

Separating the Sheriff and the jail

As Commissioners Court prepares to name a replacement Sheriff, they have some bigger plans to discuss as well.

go_to_jail

A revolutionary idea is being pitched that would reshape the law enforcement agency by removing the troubled jail from the sheriff’s responsibilities. One county commissioner is leading the charge to create a new jail administrator who would answer to Commissioners Court rather than the sheriff.

Garcia recently announced his resignation so he could run for mayor of Houston. As would-be sheriffs scrambled to get résumés to Commissioners Court to fill Garcia’s term through 2016, the most vocal proponent of carving up the job over the past week has been Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack believes the sheriff should handle police work and other directors should be held accountable for the jail, its health system and its information technology division. He said the jail’s budget is bloated, mental health cases should be better monitored and the sheriff should focus on patrolling, preventing and investigating crime in unincorporated areas of the county.

This division of power is untested in Texas, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Brandon Wood, who runs the commission, said Bexar County is the only one under the state’s local government code to assign a person to run its jail, but even in that case the sheriff oversees the jail administrator.

There is some precedent elsewhere. County supervisors in Santa Clara, Calif., split the county jail from its sheriff, with voters’ approval, in 1988 in the wake of rampant overspending on the part of the officeholder. A consultant for the reformed jail, Jeffrey Schwartz, said Santa Clara’s department of corrections answered to county supervisors until the arrangement was ultimately rescinded in 2012.

Commissioners have long questioned Garcia’s management of the jail. The most recent scandal stemmed from his firing of six jailers, suspension of 29 others and the demotion of a major in the wake of a grand jury indictment of two jail guards in the case involving a mentally ill inmate housed in a bug-infested cell.

One might get the impression from reading this story that problems at the Harris County jail began with Adrian Garcia. In reality, of course, the jail was a longstanding cesspool of neglect and mismanagement thanks to the ineptitude of Tommy Thomas. Thomas couldn’t have done it without the utter lack of oversight from Commissioners Court that he received. It wasn’t until after the voters finally sent Thomas into retirement that Commissioners Court – in particular, Steve Radack – began to give a crap about how the jail was being managed. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Is this idea even legal?

Robert Soard, first assistant Harris County attorney, said separating the health department at the jail is legal, under a 2011 revision of the state statute, but the current law designates the sheriff as “the keeper of the county jail.” So the legal question that County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office has been researching in advance of the sheriff appointment is whether a jail administrator can answer to Commissioners Court under Texas law. As Wood explained, the sheriff has discretion to appoint someone to run the jail. However, the law says “the sheriff shall continue to exercise supervision and control over the jail.”

Alan Bernstein, legislative liaison for Garcia, said what is being proposed seems untenable: “There’s a state law that controls this issue and until there’s a different law there would be nothing (for us) to respond to,” Bernstein said. “It isn’t Adrian Garcia’s state law. It isn’t state law for Harris County. It’s state law for every sheriff in every one of the 254 counties in Texas.”

Soard said the county attorney’s office will advise Commissioners Court how to attempt this setup only if it is legal.

I’m no fan of our current or previous Attorney General, but isn’t this a question for that office? I know that AG opinions take, like, six months to get written, but wouldn’t we all feel a little better if we knew someone had been researching this for all that time?

And is it even workable?

Radack said his idea is to create more transparency and efficiency. He envisions the court making a verbal agreement with the new sheriff about a separate jail administrator, which could later be formalized. However, the deal would not be binding. “Ultimately, the sheriff has the opportunity to revoke the agreement,” he said.

From an organizational perspective, it makes some sense to split the responsibility for the jail out from the Sheriff’s office, much like many counties have moved responsibility for elections out from the County Clerk’s office. It’s not clear to me how adding in an appointed administrator adds to transparency and efficiency, however. I’d like to hear a lot more about that. If this is a condition of employment for the Sheriff that the Commissioners are about to appoint, well, what does that say about accountability and public involvement? Shouldn’t the public at least have a chance to learn about this idea and come to an opinion about it before the Court moves forward on it? I’m just saying.

And, as Stace worries, if this is a back door to some kind of harebrained jail privatization scheme, well, that’s a huge can of worms to open at a very convenient time. I sure hope that isn’t the ulterior motive here, but it’s not like it should surprise anyone if it is.

The overcrowded jails of Montgomery County

Sometimes it’s hard to be a County Commissioner.

go_to_jail

Montgomery County officials are facing a dilemma partly of their own making: What to do with an ever-growing jail population after selling off another lockup.

The county’s jailers are struggling to find space for inmates — with dozens on occasion being forced to sleep on the floor or be shipped to a jail outside the county. The 1,200-bed jail is one of only five statewide — and the only one in the Houston region — rated “at risk” for overcrowding by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Next door to the county jail, separated only by a cyclone fence topped with razor wire, sits the Joe Corley Detention Center, built by the county in 2008 for $45 million. While the 1,500-bed facility was planned to someday handle jail overflow, the inmate population didn’t rise quickly enough, prompting the county to sell it to a private company in May 2013, said Commissioner Craig Doyal, who is poised to become county judge in January after a Republican primary win.

Commissioners said they felt pressured into the sale because of an Internal Revenue Service deadline that could have cost the county the tax-exempt status on the bonds used to build the center.

Commissioners had pledged during the bond election that local inmates would fill 30 percent of the center within five years — but not a single inmate had ever been placed there. They had instead been allowing the U.S. government to pay to house federal prisoners there.

Florida-based Geo Group Inc. bought the center to house undocumented immigrants, leaving commissioners on Monday with little choice but to begin reviewing new proposals, costing in the $200 million range, to expand the jail.

Doyal points out that the county earned a $20-million profit from selling the center to Geo for $65 million. At the same time, Geo pays the county an additional $250,000 per year in taxes for the center and $500,000 for managing its federal prisoner contracts.

In addition, the proposed jail expansion, if completed, would be four times larger than the detention center.

Yeah, $20 million plus $250K per year is still a long way away from $200 million. I know I was a math major and all, but I don’t think you need any particular expertise to realize that. And if the last new facility never needed to be used, why would you need a new one that’s four times bigger than the one you have now? And another thing…you know, I’m just going to hand the mike to Grits.

The main difference between this situation and a circus is that clowns in the circus are professionals. The commissioners court’s ill-considered launch and inept (and possibly corrupt) handling of the whole private jail mess has been a comedy of errors and misjudgements that would be funnier if local taxpayers weren’t footing the bill. I’d be rather surprised if voters approve a nine-figure jail bond so they can go through the whole jail-building brouhaha again. (Wanna bet commissioners try to issue the debt without voter approval?)

Grits fails to understand after all these years why, whenever public officials suggest new jail construction in response to “overcrowding,” reporters don’t immediately begin to question the causes and solicit solutions for excessive pretrial detention. More to the point, why didn’t the consultants hired by the county suggest those options? Like other jails in the state with an overcrowding problem, most Montgomery jail inmates have not been convicted of a crime (and will receive probation even if convicted). Instead, just more than two thirds of them, according to a 7/1 TCJS report, are in jail awaiting trial, still technically presumed innocent. Most simply cannot afford bail. Statewide, about 58 percent of defendants in county jails are awaiting trial; half is not at all an unreasonable goal.

Whether the old jail needs renovation I cannot say. But to the extent the issue is building more capacity, it’s likely Montgomery County officials – particularly local judges – could resolve that  without new jail construction just by expanded use of personal bonds for lower risk defendants who can’t make bail. They should try that before asking taxpayers/voters to trust them with another jail building scheme.

Yeah, what he said. To be as fair as I can be to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court, they do represent a fast-growing county, so it’s not completely unreasonable that their current jail needs are growing as well. That doesn’t detract from Grits’ point, of course. There are dumb ways to handle that kind of growth, and there are smart ways to handle it. You can see which way they’re leaning up there. Hair Balls has more.

Vaping in jail

Not sure how I feel about this.

As a way to allow some inmates to get their nicotine fix and sheriffs to shore up tight budgets, county jails across the country have begun selling electronic cigarettes. Though the trend has largely bypassed Texas, jail officials say that could change as sheriffs begin to warm up to the smokeless technology.

While traditional cigarettes are banned from most jails, vendors of e-cigarettes, which vaporize a liquid solution for inhalation, see a big market in Texas. The 245 jails regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards have a combined capacity of about 95,000.

Shannon Herklotz, the commission’s assistant director, said he knew of only two county jails in Texas that allowed electronic cigarettes. But more sheriffs, primarily in rural counties with smaller facilities, have expressed a cautious interest in selling them, asking questions about the technology, he said.

“It’s not that it’s not allowed. It’s up to each individual sheriff,” said Herklotz, who supports banning e-cigarettes to prevent issues with contraband at jails. With county jails facing budget shortfalls, e-cigarette vendors are pushing their products as a way for sheriffs to supplement revenue and help inmates suffering from withdrawal.

[…]

One vendor, Precision Vapor, recently began selling e-cigarettes to the Titus County Jail in Northeast Texas.

“It was at the request of inmates that we started selling them,” said Michael Garcia, a lieutenant at the jail, which sells the item from its commissary. “The inmates report that they feel more at ease and not as nervous,” he said. “They don’t have the agitation of going from two packs a day to zero.”

The jail, which has an average daily population of about 110 inmates, buys each e-cigarette for $3 and sells about 80 a week at $6 apiece, Garcia said. That profit helps pay for inmate uniforms and other supplies, which “eases the burden of the taxpayers.”

Brian McGiverin, a prisoner rights lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that most jails strictly banned tobacco but that sheriffs were likely to view e-cigarettes more favorably because they are less of a fire hazard than traditional cigarettes.

“It doesn’t seem like a terrible idea, setting aside the idea of whether it’s a smart idea to smoke in the first place,” he said. “The people are buying it, so that means it’s something that they want.”

Out of curiosity, I sent an email to Alan Bernstein, the Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to inquire about their policies on e-cigarettes. Here’s what he sent me:

The Harris County Jail, the state’s largest, does not allow inmate use of e-cigarettes because of the negative health effects of nicotine, the potential for these items to be traded among inmates as “currency” and the potential for misuse of the lithium battery and vaporizing function of the items. We are not aware of any vendors approaching our staff to discuss adding e-cigs to our list of inmate commissary products.

As noted before, my main concern is that the health effects of e-cigarettes are not well understood at this time. If they turn out to be helpful in getting people to quit tobacco and they don’t have any harmful effects of their own, then I can see the merit in this, though Bernstein’s point about the potential for misuse is well taken. The bit about e-cigarette sales being helpful to counties with tight budgets and “easing the burden” on taxpayers, however, makes me queasy in the same way that expanded gambling does. Being dependent on a potentially volatile income stream that is in turn highly dependent on the habits – in many cases, addictions – of a small number of mostly vulnerable people but which is invisible to most everyone else strikes me as bad public policy, one that comes with a built-in set of skewed incentives. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe e-cigarettes don’t have much in common with the tobacco kind – but until we know that I’m very skeptical of this.

We still need to reduce inmate headcount

The Harris County jail’s population is down from historic highs, but with the usual summer uptick coming, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has asked for a waiver to make some more beds available.

go_to_jail

State officials have rejected a request from Sheriff Adrian Garcia to increase the capacity of the Harris County Jail and said local leaders have not done enough in recent years to reduce the inmate population.

The inmate population at the state’s largest lockup has fallen in recent months after exceeding building capacity for the first time in two years last September, but the Sheriff’s Office says it is too close for comfort. The population is known to swell in the summer months by as much as 1,000 inmates, said spokesman Alan Bernstein, noting that Garcia’s request was intended to create some “flexibility” as county leaders work to reduce the jail population.

The building capacity of the county jail system is 9,434; the population on Monday was 8,814.

Garcia last week asked the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for permission to increase the number of supplemental beds used when the population swells, replacing 680 hard plastic cots with 1,064 metal bunk beds. He also asked that the jail still be able to use up to 100 mobile cots known as “boats” or “low-riders.”

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards agreed only to let Garcia replace the 680 cots with bunk beds to save 5,000 square feet of floor space, keeping the inmate capacity the same.

[…]

[Sen. John] Whitmire said one thing the county – its judges, in particular – is not doing that frustrates him the most is refusing to grant no-cost personal bonds to nonviolent offenders with relatively stable lives, something other large metropolitan areas in Texas are doing with increasing frequency.

Last month, 69 percent of the county’s 8,559 prisoners were pretrial detainees rather than convicted criminals serving sentences, according to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which the county created in 2009 improve the justice system and help reduce jail overcrowding.

“There’s no basis not to allow a charged person that has a job, a family and a permanent residence, who is nonviolent, but can’t come up with $1,000, to go back to work and agree to show up next month,” Whitmire said.

Caprice Cosper, director of the coordinating council, said the pretrial detainees are “not necessarily the easy population people might want it to be,” noting that two preliminary analyses have shown that about 90 percent of those detainees who are there for longer than five days have higher-than-standard bond amounts, indicating they are not first-time offenders.

There should be no need to draw inferences about the offense history of these more-than-five-day detainees. We should have hard data available about them. And even if they are mostly repeat offenders, it doesn’t follow that they’re necessarily the kind of dangerous offenders that need to be kept off the streets before their hearings. Sen. Whitmire is correct about the lack of personal recognizance bonds, and about the reluctance by judges to find alternatives to incarceration for arrestees awaiting trial. It may be that we’re doing more than we might think, as Caprice Cosper suggests, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more – a lot more, even – that we could be doing.

Jail privatization

Does anyone really think that privatizing the Harris County Jail would be a good idea?

The suggestion comes from Commissioner Steve Radack, who said the item is a way for the county to examine all ways of cutting costs as budget cuts take hold and scores of county workers are laid off.

“We need to look at trying to save taxpayers’ money and try to see if there’s a cheaper way of operating the Harris County jails,” he said. “I think the best way to do that is to put the request for proposals out on the street to see who’s interested and what their proposals are.”

The resulting ideas could result in a limited contract — for food or medical services, for instance — or total privatization, Radack said.

Anybody got a phone number for Accenture handy? I’m sure they’ll be happy to do a proposal.

County Judge Ed Emmett said it never hurts to seek efficiencies, but said he has reservations about the proposal.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of moving forward at all until somebody comes forward and says, ‘This is why privatization would be good,’ and gives me some concrete examples,” Emmett said. “Clearly, it would be a massive change that would be undertaken neither lightly nor quickly. … It’s one thing to say we’re going to privatize a jail in a very small rural setting, but to talk about a jail like ours, where not only is it a jail but it’s currently the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas — this is a large undertaking.”

As Grits points out, any savings would likely come from the privatizer paying guards less. Hey, that profit margin has to come from somewhere. Given the poor history of the jail with things like inmate deaths, sanitation, and access to health care back when Radack’s buddy Tommy Thomas was running things, this does not sound like a recipe for success to me. This proposal is really just another attack by Radack on Sheriff Adrian Garcia, since Radack never gave a damn about costs before Garcia’s election in 2008. Hopefully, this idea will get the quick burial it deserves.

Jail passes another state inspection

Good news for the Harris County jails: They passed another surprise state inspection by a Texas Commission on Jail Standards team last week.

“This certificate of compliance is a direct result of your department’s commitment to excellence and further attests, signifies and demonstrates your department’s dedication and professionalism in maintaining a safe, secure and sanitary facility,” Adan Munoz Jr., the commission’s executive director, wrote in a letter received [Tuesday] by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Before passing an inspection last August, the county lockup had failed four of its previous six state inspections. It was also the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice report last year that examined what it called an “alarming” rate of deaths occurring inside the jail.

“This is just the beginning of our efforts to not only stay in compliance with state regulations, but also to use best practices and become a comprehensive model for all urban county jails,” the sheriff said in a released statement.

More here and here. The bad news is they’re still dealing with the feds over issues of inadequate medical and mental health care.

In a January letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle through a public records request, the Justice Department told the county that its 300-page response to the findings had “serious shortcomings.”

The federal government nonetheless suggests that it would rather settle than sue to remedy what it considers civil rights violations.

Christopher Cheng, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division told the county in the letter that it would be more productive “to commence negotiating an appropriately tailored resolution to this investigation.”

Terry O’Rourke, first assistant county attorney, said there has been no recent communication between the county and the federal government, but he believes a team of county lawyers will visit Washington, D.C., perhaps in June, in hopes of settling the matter.

Apparently, these findings are based on a 2008 inspection of the jails, so there is room for the Sheriff and the County Attorney to argue that things are different now. We’ll see if they’re successful in getting a settlement agreement when they head north.

Harris County jail passes re-inspection

Good news from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office:

HARRIS COUNTY JAIL PASSES REINSPECTION

(HOUSTON, TX) – Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia is proud to announce that the Harris County Jail has passed a reinspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The reinspection of the facility at 1200 Baker was conducted last week during a surprise visit from a commission jail inspector. The inspector found that all deficiencies cited in the April 2009 inspection have been corrected. “This [certificate] attests, signifies and demonstrates your department’s dedication and professionalism in providing a safe, secure and sanitary facility,” writes Adan Munoz, Jr., Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in his letter of compliance to Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

“We have been making, are making and will continue to make improvements to the way we operate at every level,” says Sheriff Garcia. “I am very proud of our deputies, detention officers and all those that work hard every day to make sure our jail is safe, sanitary and in compliance with the strictest of standards. This is just another example of our commitment to the safety of our community,” he added.

The commission notified the county in April that the jail system had failed inspection due to several problems, including malfunctioning intercoms, toilets and crowding in holding cells where inmates await processing.

In May, Sheriff Garcia detailed to the commission a plan to make necessary repairs and changes. The latest certificate of compliance reflects the Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s commitment to making these changes.

This just hit my inbox, so there isn’t a story online yet. Here’s what I blogged in May about Sheriff Garcia’s trip to Austin. There’s still a federal inspection to be passed, but this is clearly a big step in the right direction. Kudos to Sheriff Garcia and his staff.

Garcia’s plan to fix the jails

Sheriff Adrian Garcia is off to Austin to explain how he’s going to fix problems with the Harris County jails.

Garcia, who took office in January, inherited a massive downtown detention system under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and under scrutiny for its overcrowding, as well as poor sanitation and access to medical treatment. Last month, the jail, which houses more than 10,000 prisoners in four buildings, added to its troubles with a failed state inspection.

It was the fourth time in six years the jail failed to meet state standards.

Inspectors with the state Commission on Jail Standards found problems that posed “life safety issues” to inmates. They cited broken intercoms, which could keep inmates from communicating with deputies in an emergency, unusable toilets and overcrowded holding cells.

Today, Garcia will detail for the jail commission plans to fix the facilities, including the repair of existing intercoms while the county installs a $5.3 million security and communications system that will replace the intercoms, a contract for which Commissioners Court approved Tuesday. Garcia also will outline a plan to better track maintenance requests while the Sheriff’s Department negotiates with another county department to assume more responsibility for upkeep of the jail.

“We found that we did have a large backlog of work orders over the last few months leading up to the inspection,” said Keir Murray, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

The county’s facilities and property management department oversees the contractors who maintain county buildings, an arrangement Garcia argues has stalled repairs. The Sheriff’s Office hopes to take over responsibility for jail maintenance but will try to track work orders in the meantime.

Stuff like this is a big part of the reason why Garcia was elected by such a large majority last fall. He’ll be judged by how well he does cleaning up this mess he inherited. (Getting rid of the bad actors is another key component of that.) I have no doubt he’ll be worlds better than his predecessor, but there’s a lot that needs to be done. I wish him the best of luck in doing so.

Having said that, I disagree with him about this.

Persistent problems at the Harris County Jail will cease only with the construction of a new facility, Sheriff Adrian Garcia said Thursday after negotiating with state officials to keep the downtown lockup running despite its failure of a recent inspection.

[…]

Garcia outlined short-term fixes but stressed that construction of a new building for a detention system that already holds more than 10,000 people will be inevitable. Two years ago, before Garcia took office, voters narrowly rejected a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail.

“Today is an indication of how pressing the need is,” Garcia said. “We are going to have to have a conversation about the future and make sure we don’t propose a jail that doesn’t meet the needs of the county.”

Garcia said he is open to all options for meeting demands, whether they come in the form of a downtown jail or another facility. He did not have a timeline for taking a proposal before the Commissioner’s Court or voters but said he was confident such a plan will get support.

Court members said they were open to discussions about a new jail, but only in conjunction with broader attempts to reduce the inmate population through pre-trial diversion and modified bonding policies.

“There are so many factors involved when you look at jail overcrowding that sometimes it is just too simple to say we need a new jail,” Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said.

The court has said it will not pursue a downtown jail plan unless voters approve the measure.

As you know, I agree with Commissioner Garcia on this. While I could be persuaded that we need a new building to replace the current facility because it is in such bad shape that it’s not cost-effective to repair it, I do not support adding more jail space until we’ve dealt with the overcrowding problems we have now.

Now, Sheriff Garcia told me in the first interview I did with him that he voted for that failed jail bond referendum in 2007, so his position is not a surprise. Fixing the overcrowding issue is something that will take cooperation from the judiciary and the District Attorney’s office, and we saw back in January that steps were being taken in that direction, which is very encouraging. I believe Sheriff Garcia will do the right thing, but I want to see concrete evidence of progress before I’m willing to talk about new jail construction. As with many of the issues bequeathed to him by Tommy Thomas, this can’t wait.