So it must make prison and jail administrators nervous that Texas has received a lot more attention lately from federal authorities regarding deficiencies in our corrections systems. First DOJ released a scathing report about healthcare at the Dallas County Jail. Then recently the Texas Youth Commission entered into an Agreed Order to end litigation over the Evins Unit in South Texas.
Now, the feds are turning their sights on the massive Harris County Jail system, AP reports (March 7):
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Harris County jail system, officials said Friday, probing sanitation and health conditions that have come under scrutiny from civil rights groups in recent years.Harris County's jail houses more inmates than the entire prison systems in a score of states - more than 9,000 at the jail, and another 600 housed in private contract facilities in Louisiana. The jail in Houston actually has almost 2,000 empty beds, but the Sheriff can't hire enough guards to staff it properly; for a while, before they contracted with the Louisiana facility, many Harris jail inmates were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
Department of Justice officials, in a letter to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, said its investigation will focus on "protection of inmates from harm, environmental conditions, and inmate medical and mental health care."
For the last few years, civil rights groups and local religious leaders have criticized the jail system, alleging overcrowding and poor health conditions. They have compared the jail to a "slave ship."
The jail system has a population of nearly 9,900 inmates, according to a Texas Commission on Jail Standards report last month. The commission lists the capacity at about 11,000.
In a statement, Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas, whose department runs the jail system, said federal officials will have his agency's "full cooperation."
The Justice Department said in its letter that it has not made any conclusions in the case.
Harris voters wisely rejected new jail building last fall; why build new space when you can't staff the facility you've got? Harris County officials have many options besides jail building to reduce overcrowding, if local judges and the commissioners court would support them, but Sheriff Thomas is pursuing policies that make the problem worse. Maybe pressure by the feds will encourage Harris County to consider more practical solutions than building jails that can't be staffed.
See Grits' series on the Harris County Jail from 2005 - most of the issues described therein have changed very little.