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.
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.
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.Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 08, 2009 to Crime and Punishment