Friday, September 17, 2010

Scandalous state of city jails unlikely to change anytime soon

Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune reports that "Since 2005, 66 people have died" in municipal jails that are unregulated by the State Commission on Jail Standards, 40% by suicide. She quotes a warning from
James McLaughlin, the executive director and general counsel of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, [who] says city jails are so small and inmates stay there for such short periods of time that it would be unrealistic to apply county jail standards to municipal facilities. Plus, he says, it would be expensive. “You’d see a lot of those [jails] shut down,” McLaughlin says.
But of course, if tiny municipal jails can't operate safely, a lot of them probably should shut down. Grissom adds that:
At a recent meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, jail standards officials told lawmakers that city-run facilities should face more scrutiny. Currently, there are no monitored state standards in place for either construction of or conditions inside municipal jails. And there is no requirement that city jailers be trained or certified. Since 2007, the commission has received dozens of complaints about conditions in city jails, most commonly about sanitation, food, supervision and medical care. One of the most disturbing complaints the agency received was from an inmate who said that when she was arrested, an officer put her in a jail cell, handed her a cell phone and told her to call him if she needed anything. “The complainant was left locked in the jail cell with no supervision or contact … for three hours,” according to the commission's report to lawmakers.

With no authority over city jails, there’s nothing the commission can do about those complaints. 
Here's a telling example of how these jails currently oversee inmates in their care:
At the Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing last week, Hedwig Village Police  Chief Dave Barber told lawmakers that he might have to shut down his eight-cell lockup if he had to meet the same standards as county jails. His small town is a Houston suburb, and at most, he said, he has about two or three people at a time in the jail. The longest anyone can stay there, he said, is 56 hours.

With so few people in his jail, Barber said, it doesn’t make sense to hire a full-time, licensed jailer. Instead, he keeps a timer in the station that is set to ding every hour. When the timer dings, an officer walks back to check on the inmates. If all of the officers are out on patrol, the dispatcher checks on the jail. And he said his wards are fed three squares a day — each one a McDonald’s Happy Meal. “It’s embarrassing to tell you this,” Barber told the committee. “But this is the way that most of us operate.”
Pitiful. Just pitiful. And we're supposed to believe such "services" are something municipalities just can't live without? What a crock. Barber's main argument for keeping the jail is that they'd otherwise have to pay the county for locking up the same inmates, but running jails costs money. Regrettably,
Combine the budget woes with the political power of city leaders and police chiefs who oppose municipal jail regulation and [Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John] Whitmire says he has no expectation that those facilities will face more accountability anytime soon. “If there are abuses, we have remedies,” he says. “We have civil rights laws. We have Texas Rangers. We have investigative bodies.”
It's too bad the Rangers, District Attorneys and other "investigative bodies" have been, and will likely continue to be, complicit in sweeping such problems under the rug instead of holding those responsible for abuse and neglect accountable. This may be a situation where civil litigation must drive up costs enough to make sending the inmates to county jails more financially attractive before (supposedly) responsible parties make what seems like an obvious decision: Cities that can't afford to adequately staff jails and provide medical and other services simply shouldn't operate them.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Combine the budget woes with the political power of city leaders and police chiefs who oppose municipal jail regulation and [Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John] Whitmire says he has no expectation that those facilities will face more accountability anytime soon. “If there are abuses, we have remedies,” he says. “We have civil rights laws. We have Texas Rangers. We have investigative bodies.”

How about we have criminal laws too. Leaving someone unattended in a jail setting should be criminal. Too many things can happen like an inmate is assaulted by another inmate, the jail catches on fire and no one is present to evacuate or an inmate commits suicide.

The 8th amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment. And if that is not enough, Texas culpable mental states should make these jails subject to criminal prosecution when something bad happens and no one was around minding the jail


c) A person acts recklessly, or is reckless, with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor's standpoint.

(d) A person acts with criminal negligence, or is criminally negligent, with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor's standpoint.



Acts 1973, 63rd Leg., p. 883, ch. 399, Sec. 1, eff. Jan. 1, 1974. Amended by Acts 1993, 73rd Leg., ch. 900, Sec. 1.01, eff. Sept. 1, 1994.





Sec. 6.04. CAUSATION: CONDUCT AND RESULTS. (a) A person is criminally responsible if the result would not have occurred but for his conduct, operating either alone or concurrently with another cause, unless the concurrent cause was clearly sufficient to produce the result and the conduct of the actor clearly insufficient.

(b) A person is nevertheless criminally responsible for causing a result if the only difference between what actually occurred and what he desired, contemplated, or risked is that:

(1) a different offense was committed; or

(2) a different person or property was injured, harmed, or otherwise affected.



Acts 1973, 63rd Leg., p. 883, ch. 399, Sec. 1, eff. Jan. 1, 1974. Amended by Acts 1993, 73rd Leg., ch. 900, Sec. 1.01, eff. Sept. 1, 1994.

Anonymous said...

Closing down the municipal jails is probably not the answer; in fact if given the choice (everyone) and I mean everyone that has ever been arrested would rather spend their brief incarceration period in the confines of a small municipal jail than in any county jail anywhere.

The propensity for unattended and unnoticed violence and death is far greater in a county jail. Ask those in a county jail if they could choose a happy meal over what they are being served it will be a unanimous decision.

I find it comical that of all municipalities to be made an example that Hedwig Village drew the wild card. Hedwig Village is located in a zip code that is readily recognized by those seeking campaign contributions. The high school seniors within Hedwig Village drive themselves to school in brand new automobiles that are insured by the year and not month to month like so many Houston drivers whose cars are unable to pass inspection, I wonder where the money (is) going. I would think that if having their own municipality and their own police force is so important to them that it would also be quite possible for them to staff their jail.

The Hedwig Village Municipal Jail and every single municipal jail in Harris County is the Taj Mahal compared to the Harris County Jail or any county jail anywhere, so before you start figuring out how to make things better by closing them please consider how much worse you’re going to make it by attempting to do so; and I will thank you in advance for all the future detainees that will be very lucky to find freedoms door before they get transferred to the county jail if you will leave this particular dog to rest.

A huge part of the problem could be addressed if the capias pro fine were eliminated from the class c misdemeanor. The way it is now if a person has been convicted of a class c misdemeanor and a fine is assessed then a payment plan of some kind is the option when the defendant is unable to pay the full amount immediately.

Most people have no clue that if they fail to meet the obligation of simply showing up to pay anything and requesting additional time when they do not have the full portion of what they are supposed to pay in payments and that then by failing to do so the full amount becomes due immediately with the payment option then being taken away completely. In fact the thought is (if I don’t have the full portion I’m supposed to pay today I might be going to jail), and if I don’t have the money today, going to jail tomorrow or whenever I might get caught looks pretty good.

It is also incredibly easy to forget that a traffic fine payment is due today because of the rigors of day to day life, “my school project is due tomorrow mom,” or the dentist appointment for child number two, or your work schedule got changed because somebody else told your boss that they had a court date that day and so you get appointed to be the one to show up early or stay late without notification or reason why.

Whatever the reason may be; once the payment date is missed a capias pro fine warrant is issued and the possibility of making payments is gone forever; so instead of paying what you can afford even if its less than what you are supposed to pay, the entire amount that was impossible for you to pay originally, (and still is), now becomes due in full or you face going to jail. What is most ridiculous is that the second arrest and jail time required to sit out the fine is a (cost) to tax payers when the defendant would gladly have resumed making payments and put money into the system if given the option.

Anonymous said...

If given the choice everyone and I mean (everyone) that has ever been arrested would rather spend their brief incarceration in a small municipal jail or an outlying county jail facility rather than in a large county jail. The possibility of violence and death in a large jail is far greater than that of a small one. Ask anyone in a county jail if they would prefer a happy meal over what they are being served and the response will be unanimous as well. The Hedwig Village jail and every single municipal jail in Harris County are the Taj Mahal compared to any county jail anywhere.
Before anyone considers making things better by closing these jails I would hope that they would consider how much worse it would make it for those who actually end up in jail.
Of all the municipalities in Harris County to be made an example I find it comical that Hedwig Village was mentioned at all. Hedwig Village is located in a zip code that is readily recognized by those seeking campaign contributions. The High School students drive brand new and much nicer cars to school than the teachers do. This is a municipality that has more than adequate resources.
This is a policy decision not an economic shortage and there are very effective ways to find resources to both staff the jails and provide for outside independent or governmental supervision without costing tax payers a dime. The answer is in collecting the fines for class c misdemeanors plain and simple. The surplus that could accompany proper management and common sense policies could also help local municipalities and counties with funds for libraries, parks, public transit and a slew of other government concerns that should be attended.
Now on the other hand if someone were to look at this in the sense that closing down all outlying jails would place an immediate burden on county jails thus creating an emergency relief situation to further an agenda relating to jail overcrowding this would be a pretty good ploy to try and manipulate.
Several governmental policy decisions have created this class c misdemeanor mess in a way that only government can and the solutions are to change an old policy and to scrap some new ones that have ineffectively been in effect for many years in Harris County.
Some decisions were made to help ease “jail overcrowding” and have done little more than take badly needed funds from the county treasury and eliminate badly needed funds that for years were coming into the county treasury, a double dip whammy of government knowhow, the coupe de grace of which has also helped to impact the county jail creating more jail overcrowding rather than less. A shining example of how the high ideals of those who seek to correct the injustice of jail overcrowding and the agenda of less police and less incarceration can manipulate the system with favorable bad outcomes in order to continue their quest all in the name of justice.
Besides needing the availability of police and their jails for all the obvious emergency and crime related reasons the call for less traffic enforcement (class c misdemeanors) is scary considering that not a single day ever passes on the streets of Houston when thousands of unsafe drivers should be pulled over again and again until they either stop driving or figure out how to drive safely.

Anonymous said...

Warnings should be given for the incidentals, registration and inspection; a strike three policy would seem fair. The driver’s safety responsibility act should be gutted; the fines assessed on the local level are more than adequate and the state needs to keep their greedy fingers to themselves. Eliminate the capias pro fine; if a person fails to meet their obligation give them an unlimited amount of chances to start over, simply issue a new warrant for non-compliance, let them post a bond and continue paying until their debt is paid, the forever long policy of making people pay all or go to jail after they have missed an installment payment is ridiculous it serves no good purpose, if they could have paid it all to begin with they would not have opted to make installment payments in the first place and taking them to jail without recourse is a cost with no return.
Eliminate the special court in the county jail for class c misdemeanors, these defendants have always readily made bail and the existence of the court keeps these defendants locked up for longer than they should have to be just going though the process; then they are released with no compensation whatsoever for time served, what a total waste of time, manpower and resources with no return.
Reopen or at least begin the usage again of outlying county jail facilities to hold the class c misdemeanor defendants until bail is made, these people will not stay there long they never have and this is simply wasted jail space that is available, the lights, the air conditioning and the officers and the courts are there, they simply have no prisoners. For the very few who do not make bail within 48 hours let them go before the magistrate that is already there on sight and available the next day, if all the Justice of the Peace judges are represented by one Justice of the Peace judge in the county jail then they should all certainly have the authority individually to pass judgment for all who stand before them as well.
These common sense changes would dramatically change the revenue resources for local municipalities and county justice of the peace courts bringing millions upon millions of dollars back into the system that have been lost and add millions upon millions that have never been calculated; it would eliminate the wasted tax cost of unneeded court personnel, utilize facilities that are there and being paid for but not being used, help reduce the cost of jail overcrowding, and put the system back on track toward economic recovery
BTW, really nice to have you back grits, you were sorely missed. I hope your well needed trip was a fun and memorable one, now please get back to the thankless, payless but much appreciated task you do so well.
Your friendly neighborhood bondsman

R. Shackleford said...

Personally, I'd be ecstatic to get a happy meal in jail. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

What sucks is when you are held in a crowded holding cell for 3 days eating those nasty sandwiches and you can't brush your teeth.

Andres Morin said...

I find it hard to believe that the City of Hedwig Village can't afford a full- time licensed jailer. This city is nestled along next to Piney Point Village, Bunker Hill Village, and Spring Valley. For those of you who are not familiar with this part of Houston, this is where the millionaires live!!....@ndy