Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas has appealed the order by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to relocate 500 prisoners in order to bring Harris County's jails into compliance on prisoner-to-guard ratios and other issues.
By appealing the order, which is aimed at ending a three-year inmate crowding problem, Thomas buys the county an extra three months to avoid relocating the inmates.
"We've been working diligently on this for many months," he said.
During the next 90 days, Thomas hopes to bring the jail complex into compliance with the required 48-1 inmate-to-guard ratio, as ordered by the jail commission. He said he believes that goal can be met by August, when the commission is next scheduled to meet, through extensive use of overtime and working aggressively to hire new jailers.
Thomas estimated the overtime cost at $20 million a year and said his plan may also include putting some enforcement personnel to work at the jails.
Thomas' proposed solution is not popular with everyone.
"The only plan they have is to work people into the ground that are already being worked into the ground," said a guard who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
Thomas also sought to spread the blame around a bit:
Thomas also accused Harris County judges and the District Attorney's Office of circumventing state law by allowing nonviolent offenders to negotiate plea agreements enabling them to serve sentences in the county jail rather than in state facilities.
"It just defeats the whole purpose of the state-jail felony," Thomas said.
State District Judge Caprice Cosper denied that the plea agreements circumvent the law. She said the law allowing judges to send low-level offenders to county jails has been in place since 1974. Cosper added that the number of criminal cases filed in Harris County's district courts has increased steadily.
District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal acknowledged that sending state-jail felons to the county jail is an often-used option, but said he doesn't always agree with the practice.
"I certainly try to tell my people that I'd rather have (criminals) go to state jail rather than county jail," Rosenthal said. "And just for (the expense) reason. Who pays for it?"
Oh, and in case Harris County loses its appeal and does have to farm out inmates, it won't be able to ask its neighbors for help because their jails are all full, too.
''There's more jail beds today than ever before, but there's no room,"said Terry Julian, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, noting that the county jails in the state are at 86 percent of capacity.
If it does become necessary to ship prisoners, county officials want to keep them within 200 miles. But only two neighboring counties - Montgomery and Liberty - say they have enough room and staffing to spare. Waller County is at 52 percent capacity.
Many counties have built or are building new facilities to keep up with the increasing number of inmates. Eleven jail facilities are either under construction or near completion, Julian said.
In the Houston region, Galveston County is set to open a new 1,171-bed facility this month because its jail has been over capacity for several years.
''It will give them some space, but I bet you that jail fills up quick because they have been without space for some time," Julian said.