The state jail commission cited Harris County for having 355 prisoners more than authorized in 19 cells in the basements of two criminal justice buildings on Monday, the latest setback in a chronically overcrowded jail system that costs taxpayers $18 million a year in overtime alone.There's a sense in which this issue is being falsely framed: The immediate problem is not "overcrowding' per se but understaffing. When Grits visited the jail in 2010, there were 600 empty beds on the upper floors that could only be staffed with overtime. This was a key reason Grits opposed Harris County's jail expansion plan a few years back: What good does it do to add extra cell capacity if there aren't enough guards to staff the facility now?
The citations were issued by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, after inspectors made a surprise inspection at 5 a.m. Monday of holding cells beneath court facilities at 1201 Franklin and an adjacent building at 1301 Franklin, which are connected by tunnels to the county jail.
One holding cell at 1301 Franklin with an approved capacity of five inmates was packed with 25. In cellsbeneath 1201 Franklin, only five jailers were supervising 409 prisoners, fewer than the nine required by state law. Inmates housed in the holding cells await court proceedings.
The jail commission's executive director, Adan Munoz, said the "blatant overcrowding" his inspectors found in the holding facilities Monday will not be tolerated. He added the situation posed not only a potential health danger to inmates, but an opportunity for a riot, an attack on inmates, or an escape attempt.
"That's dangerous, when you put that many inmates in a cell," Munoz said. "One had 76 in a 23-person cell. My God, that's a danger in itself. It could be a health issue."
Munoz said Harris County has 30 days to submit a plan to correct the deficiencies and must be able to show the remedy is working for 30 days to avoid state sanctions.
"My inspector there this morning mentioned the cells were not only overcrowded but they smelled, it was filthy,'' Munoz said.
County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said overcrowding in holding cells is due to a shortage of jailers, adding he has repeatedly asked for authorization to replace some of the 300 full-time jailers who have left. The jail operates on a $220 million annual budget and employs 2,274 employees.
One welcome difference from similar debates in the past, "District Attorney Pat Lykos released a statement saying her office is 'committed to working with all relevant officials to resolve the situation to ensure compliance' with state jail standards." If that's true, then the problem can perhaps be mitigated. Sheriff Garcia alone can't reduce the number of prisoners in the jail or manufacture extra staff out of thin air. He needs assistance from other players in the system, and the largest share of responsibility lies with judges and the DA's office.
You can see that reading between the lines at the end of Pinkerton's story. Though Judge Belinda Hill disputed it, the Sheriff's Office says that half of inmates brought to court - those in the holding cells criticized for understaffing - never made it into the courtroom, usually because prosecutors and defense attorneys reached a plea deal. This brings up the real issue: Prosecutors routinely request and judges routinely require bail for low-risk, low-income defendants primarily for the purposes of pressuring them for a plea bargain, not because they're a serious public safety risk if released awaiting trial. For many if not most jail inmates, the main incarceration they'll experience will be during pretrial detention, not serving a post-conviction punishment. At its endgame, the purpose for incarcerating so many low-risk defendants pretrial isn't so much to protect the public - nearly all of those who aren't sent to prison will get out soon, anyway - as to lower the workload of already overwhelmed courts, which would be completely swamped if more defendants exercised their right to trial.
So judges would rather create problems for the Sheriff than reduce overcrowding because reducing pretrial detention would lower incentives for defendants to take plea deals. These practices have grown the system to the point where the commissioners court can no longer afford to adequately staff the jail without significant tax increases that are not politically palpable. As a result, the system flounders.
Whatever solutions are proposed to the immediate problem, we're dealing with symptoms rather than the underlying pathogen. Ultimately the volume of cases piped through the system is unsustainable, and squeezing the balloon in one area, like the jail, causes it to bulge in other places like the courts. As Grits has lamented many times, we live in an era when the criminal justice system is treated as the go-to solution to every social problem from addiction to homelessness to immigration to mental illness: That's a situation the courts and sheriff didn't create, but which in the short to medium term they must manage. In the long run, the better solution is for the Legislature and local government to create alternative mechanisms besides cops, courts and jails to deal with those in society who're perhaps troublesome but not especially dangerous.