Presently the Harris County jail processes more than 640,000 inmate visits per year. Smith fantasizes that jailers presently spending time escorting all those inmates will be free to staff yet more jail facilities Harris wants to build with the same bond money. Where does it end?
A major appeal of a video system to law enforcement is the reduction in the number of guards needed to accommodate face-to-face visitations, according to Chief Deputy Mike Smith of the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
"More than anything else (in-person visits) are manpower-intensive," said Smith, who oversees the jail system.
The head of the local criminal defense bar declared that "Most of the people in the jail haven't been convicted of a damn thing, and to deny them human contact is ridiculous." I tend to agree. I'm not at all opposed to adding "virtual visits" to the range of options, but it's wrong to exclude in-person visits, especially for kids.
Just like at TYC where understaffing creates a false choice between use of force and pepper spray, understaffing at the Harris jail has created a false choice between personal and virtual visits. The very need for a choice at all is a function of the understaffing crisis that's affecting not just Harris but other counties, TYC, and the state prison system.
We can no longer afford to simply lock more and more people up as a solution to social problems. Literally Texas has incarcerated so many people, at both the state and local level, we can no longer hire people to guard them, at least at prevailing wages. Tack onto that the demand for guards from immigration detention centers and private prisons, and we've simply run up against the limit of folks in the state willing to take these jobs.
The answer to this crisis isn't to punish the families of inmates by cost shifting onto them. Rather the Sheriff, county commissioners, the DA, judges, and local police must take responsibility for their own role in creating these problems. I sympathize with jail administrators looking for creative solutions to overcrowding, and I've tried to suggest a few.
But the November bond scheme ignores the root of the crisis: Harris cannot build their way out of its problems, and can't staff new facilities if they're built. Indeed, I need to take a closer look at the bond package. For a county that just last year had prisoners sleeping on the floor and simultaneously an unopened jail wing because of lack of staffing, I don't see how they think they can staff new facilities now.