HB 684 This legislation would help Texas counties to address the high costs of jail overcrowding by allowing them to house low-risk inmates in tent facilities. In 2006, I visited Maricopa County, Arizona and met with Sheriff Joe Arapaio [sic], who runs the largest tent jail facility in the nation. The Maricopa County Sheriff is known for being possibly the toughest sheriff in the country for housing inmates in tents. Sheriff Joe designed his tent jail facility to reduce recidivism and cut costs. In efforts to reduce the high costs of jail overcrowding, HB 684 would allow counties to house low-risk inmates indefinitely in tents or other facilities in lieu of a county jail, in keeping with standards already in place. Maricopa County Deputy Chief Jack MacIntyre is flying in from Arizona to testify in favor of this legislation!The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has long had rules in place for use of tents by county jails. The only significant change the bill makes is to declare that such rules must allow use of tents "indefinitely." Currently counties can only use tent jails for a maximum of up to three years.
Modeling one's jail policy on Maricopa County is an invitation for extra trouble and expense, particularly in the form of litigation. According to Wikipedia, "From 2004 through November 2007, Arpaio was the target of 2,150 lawsuits in U.S. District Court and hundreds more in Maricopa County courts, with more than $50 million in claims being filed, 50 times as many prison-conditions lawsuits as the New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston jail systems combined. Allegations of cruel treatment of inmates as well as living conditions have been cited by Amnesty International in a report issued on the treatment of inmates in Maricopa County facilities." Reported the Phoneix New Times in 2007, "There simply isn't another jail system in America with this history of taxpayer-financed litigation." (Relatedly, see more background on Deputy Chief MacIntyre who's coming in to testify for the bill.)
Without walls, tent jails are also particularly prone to contraband smuggling, not to mention additional inmate health problems related to heat, cold, sanitation, etc..
Rep. Larson's bill invites counties to take on similar liabilities that seem to me totally unnecessary. The legislation allows tent jails, but fails to add any measures that might prevent the kind of litigation endured in Maricopa County. As such, the bill is just as likely to open up counties for extra costs as it is to save them any money. Bad idea. Mass incarceration creates budget problems, it's true, but the solution isn't to skimp on secure jails.