Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bexar jail personnel problems glaring

Lots of problems cropping up at the Bexar County Jail recently related to personnel issues:

Last week, "A Bexar County detention officer was arrested when he was caught trying to smuggle what he believed to be drugs into the county jail," while another was "charged with violating the civil rights of a person in custody, accused of sexual contact with a female inmate. Trials this summer saw convictions of a jailer who smuggled a hacksaw blade to an inmate in a taco, and another jailer who smuggled a cell phone into the jail in a box of ramen noodles.

Then there's the matter of sufficiently staffing the jail, which presently is sending prisoners to other counties despite having hundreds of empty beds because staff aren't available to guard the extra wings. County commissioners say it's fully staffed, as Commissioner Tommy Adkisson wrote in a recent op ed:
our jail, typically packed with inmates, has for most of this year been able to produce 600-700 empty cells. Recently, inmates were sent to one of the surrounding county's jail, creating a stir and questions about how that could be when we have surplus space in our jail.

Though staffed for a capacity of 4,600 inmates, we apparently were not able to guard 3,800 inmates with such staffing. Since every 400 inmates cost Bexar County $8 million, Commissioner's Court, the primary guardian of the tax rate, must scrutinize this and allow our sheriff to help us understand how this can be.
Indeed! Adkisson has long been one of the few commissioners in the state who understood so intuitively the relationship between high incarceration rates and high taxes, or at least he's one of the only ones willing to discuss it publicly. It should be said, though, that not everybody agrees with him that the jail is staffed for full capacity. A Bexar deputy recently told Grits that they'd been understaffed for years, only covering shifts with mandatory overtime, and that eliminating so many slots in the most recent county budget would only exacerbate problems. That assessment simply doesn't jibe with comments by Adkisson and other commissioners that the jail has more staff than it needs. Hard to judge who's right without more information, but the fact that commissioners included significant overtime in the budget for jailers tells me even they realize they don't have enough deputies to cover shifts with the staff they've presently got.

Shortcomings in the county's handling of suicidal inmates may also relate to shortstaffing, with notable failures in screening inmates and few services available to suicidal inmates, resulting in one of the highest suicide rates among jails nationally.

Managing jails is a messy business because of the "too many cooks" phenomenon. The Sheriff manages the jail but county commissioners control the budget. Meanwhile police, prosecutors and judges  make most of the decisions that determine how many people end up in jail at any given time, with no reference at all to budgetary constraints. Add in the bureaucracy at the local probation department, the deputies union, and other various actors and the result is a hodge podge of competing interests and agendas. That's not just in Bexar, that's the structure in every Texas county and in most other states as well. The biggest questions surrounding jail managemet are as much political as managerial. It's hard to solve such quandaries when the various actors can't even agree on what the problems are.


Anonymous said...

Grits needs to keep a close eye on the Harris County Jail. They have 10 times these problems and the county is getting ready to put it up for the lowest bidder to privatize it.

Dennis McKnight said...

Awh! Geez! Don't be so tough on poor old Bexar County. A great person once said: "Forgive them for they no not what they do."

texasjailbird said...

Speaking of too many cooks and managerial problems: don't forget that in many jails, the sheriff doesn't have much say so over who is handling the inmate's medical needs.
We found out, for example, that in Gregg County, the county commissioners hired the jail doctor who runs the medical unit for inmates while the sheriff is in charge of the inmates in every other way. (Gregg County: the jail where two young inmates have died in 6 months while in severe medical distress.) As far as I can tell, this doctor doesn't answer to anyone but the commissioners – who have more fun things to do than oversee him.

Anonymous said...

Gregg County Jail? Hmm? I will leave that alone becuase it is the worst of the worst.