Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why bother inspecting jails if the state can't enforce the rules? Jail Standards Commission Sunset bill up this week

The Dallas County Jail just failed its seventh straight annual jail inspection this week. The Montague County Jail failed its last inspection, exhibiting conditions later described as "Animal House meets Mayberry."

Texas jails get inspected, they fail, but the problems never get solved. Bottom line: The Texas Jail Standards Commission is powerless to enforce its own rules.

With the agency up for "Sunset" review this session, 2009 should be Texas' best opportunity to strengthen the agency's regulatory authority, but such changes weren't included in the Sunset bill that was filed. The senate version (carried by Robert Deuell) will be heard in the Senate Government Organization Committee on Wednesday, April 1. (That committee is chaired by Sen. Rodney Ellis, who will have a busy week with many of his innocence-related bills up in committee the day before.)

In the House, Rep. Linda Harper-Brown is carrying the TCJS Sunset bill, which has been assigned to the County Affairs Committee (chaired by Democrat Garnet Coleman), not Corrections Committee, which would seem like the more obvious choice.

It's not that the Sunset legislation as proposed doesn't have some good things in it, particularly improving the complaint process and increasing transparency about problems found at individual jails. But it wouldn't give TCJS authority, when it finds a situation like in Montague County, to formally require improvements or sanction jails for noncompliance.

Dallas' continued failure to meet state standards and the outlandish case in Montague County clearly demonstrate that TCJS doesn't have authority to enforce its own rules. This fact was openly discussed last year during the Sunset process, but the Sunset Commission chose not to recommend such new authority. The bill could still be amended, but regrettably, the current version does not substantially strengthen the agency's regulatory clout.


Anonymous said...

Doesn't the jail that fails incur lots of liability for the county? That's what TJPC tells counties all the time. They are only trying to save us from ourselves. Ever heard of a county being penalized, whether it be jail or detention facility,for their not being in compliance with the manuals filled with standards? And I'll not even bring up TYC facilities.

JTP said...

Well, one solution might be to take advantage of the bill that Rep. Madden has introduced to create a Criminal and Juvenile Ombudsman's Office. Why not modify the bill to include taking Jail Standards staff with expertise in jail inspections and place them under the umbrella of this new Ombudsman's office. Then Sunset Jail Standards and move the money with the folks that transfer. If subsequent jail inspections reveal substandard jails, the Ombudsman's office contacts the Feds. or initiates a class action civil lawsuit on behalf of the inmates for damages against the counties. Knowing that the Ombudsman's jail inspectors can invite in federal intervention and bring you under a Special Master or conservatorship and/or initiate a class action suit, is something that will motivate county commissioners to become more proactive and spend the money on the necessary evil of incarceration.

Anonymous said...

"Bottom line: The Texas Jail Standards Commission is powerless to enforce its own rules."

Am I missing something here?

Create more rules so the new rules won't be enforced. Why not use the current rules, get a remedial order, close the jail and move the Dallas County inmates somewhere else?

Texas Administrative Code

RULE §297.8 Remedial Order by Commission

(a) If the commission determines that the responsible officials receiving a notice of noncompliance or an administrative order fail to initiate corrective measures within the time prescribed, the commission may, by remedial order, delivered by certified mail, return receipt requested or by personal service to the responsible officials, declare that the facility in question or any portion thereof be closed, that further confinement of inmates or classifications of inmates in the noncomplying facility or any portion thereof be prohibited, that all or any number of the inmates then confined be transferred to and maintained in another designated facility, or any combination of such remedies.

(b) The remedial order of the commission shall be in writing and shall specifically identify each minimum standard with which the facility has failed to comply. Such remedial order shall become final and effective 15 days after its receipt by the responsible officials, provided, however, that if a review of commission action (§297.10 of this title (relating to Review of Commission Action)) or request for administrative hearing (§297.11 of this title (relating to Request for Administrative Hearing)) on such remedial order is requested, the enforcement of such remedial order shall be stayed until such time as the commission has rendered its decision following its hearing.

(c) If a remedial order is issued, the commission shall furnish the sheriff/operator with a list of qualified facilities to which the inmates may be transferred. The sheriff/operator of the facility shall immediately transfer the number of inmates necessary to bring the facility into compliance to a facility that agrees to accept the inmates. The agreement shall be in writing and shall be signed by the sheriff/operator transferring the inmates and the sheriff/operator receiving the inmates. A facility transferring inmates under this subsection shall immediately remove the inmates from the receiving facility if the sheriff/operator of the receiving facility requests their removal in writing. The owner responsible for the noncomplying facility shall bear the liability for and the cost of transportation and maintenance of inmates transferred to or from a noncomplying facility by order of the commission. The costs of transportation and maintenance shall be determined by agreement between the participating jurisdictions and shall be paid into the treasury of the entity providing transportation and/or maintenance.

(d) When a remedial order is issued to terminate a contract for housing inmates not sentenced in a Texas court, the responsible officials shall initiate action to terminate the contract and transfer the effected inmates. A copy of the remedial order shall be provided the sending state.


Source Note: The provisions of this §297.8 adopted to be effective December 27, 1994, 19 TexReg 9882; amended to be effective September 2, 1997, 22 TexReg 8406.

JTP said...

Am I missing something here?

If they have the tools, such as remedial orders, why aren't they being used?

Anonymous said...

How many inmates are there in Dallas County? Where would you move them to? That is the missing tool.

At least the Jail Commission can require them to appear at a hearing in Austin and make their actions public. TJPC cannot even do that with these juvenile facilities.

There should be local public outcry regarding violations because, yes, these situations put the counties at risk for lawsuits. The judges and commissioners are not too concerned because they will just raise taxes after the fact.

When you add this liability issue in with just the daily expenses, especially medical, the public should revolt on these lower level offenders being held in jail. Each person you hold is a tremendous risk if something goes wrong.

The Ombudsman is a good idea, however they had better pack some form of a punch for violations. As it stands now, judges/commissioners will just tell lies and go back to the same because they know there is really nothing they can do about it.

Anonymous said...

The Smith County jail recently passed an inspection. I think it's great that TJPC hires blind inpsectors!

Anonymous said...

Oops I meant it's great that TJSC hires blind inspectors (not TJPC).

Anonymous said...

"If they have the tools, such as remedial orders, why aren't they being used?"

As far as closing them down totally or a portion of the jail or making them house a portion of their inmaes somewhere else, Dallas County is a big county with a lot of political influence, not like a small rural county without any political influence.

There lies the difference.

Anonymous said...

Herklotz told county commissioners he was pleased with the jails' increased cleanliness. He also noted other improvements, such as fewer inmate complaints and better training documentation.

"We appreciate all your efforts. I know you're trying. But these issues we just could not overlook," he said.

What issues do they overlook?

Anonymous said...

You would be surprised, or let's say, shocked to know what gets "overlooked".

And who inspects the city jails?

Anonymous said...

Should the title of your story be "won't" instead of "can't" enforce the rules?

Anonymous said...

What do you mean when you say "the Texas Jail Standards Commission is powerless to enforce its own rules?"

Gritsforbreakfast said...

A fair criticism, 8:29. That probably would have been a more accurate title. It's true there are tools in the law that aren't used frequently enough. And to give them some credit, e.g., they effectively used a remedial order at the height of Harris County's overcrowding problems.

The "can't" part comes from chronic understaffing - TCJS employs just a handful of peole and can't remotely manage as many remedial orders as would be required if they exercised their full authority on every noncompliant jail. They can barely get everybody inspected once per year.

Anonymous said...

I agree they do not have enough inspectors. Not every county in Texas has a jail, but four inspectors for the entire state and private facilities is not feasible.

The inspectors should not be based in Austin and required to drive to various points in Texas from Austin. Perhaps the inspector should reside somewhere in his assigned county area, which would make unnanounced inspections more frequent and save on travel expenses.

More full time inspectors are definitely needed. But since more full time inspectors most likely will not be funded by the lege,
perhaps TCJS should consider asking for authorization to hire part time inspectors to compliment the full time inspectors. There are many capable people throughout the state with a lot of knowledge and experience, they just need to be asked.

These part time inspectors could be hired contractually and would save the state a lot of money in the way of personnel expenses associated with full time emnployment. But most importantly, might allow more time devoted to taking action against chronic non compliant facilities.

Anonymous said...

One should look at how much time the current inspectors are spending at the house instead of at a jail before stating that the problem is a result of not enough inspectors. I think tax payers would be horrified to find out that although the Jail Standards was given another inspector last session the "inspectors" are not spending anymore time at a jail than before. I understand that they spend a couple of days during the week at the house. You know what, even if these folks wanted to get tough - which they don't because if they did their jobs their buddies at the jail who would give them free meals, ballgame tickets, hunting trips, beer - they couldn't, the counties will not allow it.

Anonymous said...

And so on, the IGNORANT speak!! If you do not know what you are talking about, you should not post comments. I KNOW that at least 1 inspector does live in his area. I also KNOW that most, if not all, of the inspectors take their job very serious. Past administrative ideas are long behind us and a new administration is in office. I have had the privilege to speak with every inspector and find them very professional in the duties and issues that face them everyday. Each jail is a entity of it's own. It is each County's responsibility to take credit or blame for the problems that they face. It is not the jail standards responsibility to "clean up" a county. They are there to help them and give them guidance. They DO that effectively, when given the opportunity. The County has to allow them the opportunity!! I become amused when I read all the comments from people that "know all the answers" but don't "know all the questions".

If you want to write something about the jail standards commission, write your Legislature and County Commissioners and tell them that the jail standards commission needs more support and funding so that they will be allowed to make more visits and can provide more assistance to troubled jails.

Anonymous said...

I KNOW that at least 1 inspector does live in his area.

Whhich one?

Anonymous said...

I think TCJS has one helluva job cut out for itself. And, while I think it's reasonable and prudent to notice the state does not enforce the agency's rules, I feel like asking "Why bother inspecting jails if the state can't (/won't) enforce the rules?" implies the state agency's inspection process, imperfect as it is, is not valuable.

TCJS provides valuable technical support during inspections, informs jail administrators on best practices, investigates inmate and family grievances, sets and inspects construction standards, and it does all of this with just 17 staff (4 inspectors). The agency does possess the authority to shutter jails and issue remedials, and it does so on occassion, but, as the sunset report recognized,

"It basically has to tell elected county offi cials what they need to do to properly construct and operate their jails. Its actions can impose signifi cant costs on counties to comply with standards, and yet it must try to achieve compliance without taking too heavy a hand in forcing action or shutting down jails, and without providing any funding to assist counties in making needed changes. In addition, the Commission has had to contend with the perception that its standards only protect the safety and welfare of county inmates, who may not always be held in the highest regard."

While I'm in favor of increasing the agency's regulatory authority, and giving it some teeth, I'll offer the following frank assessment: The agency isn't using the regulatory authority it currently has. Why would giving it more enforcement authority make a difference?