Advocates Worry About Jail Commission Conflicts

When Harris County officials last week pleaded with the state's Commission on Jail Standards to allow them to keep extra prisoners in their already crowded facilities, they were preaching to a sympathetic choir that included one of their own employees.

One of the commission's nine members is Dr. Michael Seale, the medical director of the Harris County Sheriff's Office; like him, four others work for agencies that are directly affected by rules that the commission is supposed to set to protect inmate safety. The members — including elected county officials or employees of the county jails the commission regulates — oversee 245 county lockups handling about 70,000 inmates across the state. They are appointed by the governor, but state law mandates that at least four of the nine are drawn from a pool of county officials, a situation some advocates liken to the fox guarding the hen house. 

Thirty-five years after lawmakers created the commission to regulate county jails, advocates are calling for change in its makeup, worried about potential conflicts of interest and a lack of representation from fields outside of law enforcement. Experts in mental health or drug addiction, for instance, "could bring to bear a larger array of solutions to the many problems jails face,” says Diana Claitor, director of the Texas Jail Project. Commission Executive Director Adan Muñoz — a former sheriff himself — counters that calls for change are unwarranted. The commission, though dominated by law enforcement interests, remains open to alternative perspectives from the public, he says. “There is no way, shape or form that anyone is deterred from speaking to this group,” Muñoz says. But at least one lawmaker says it may be time for a change.

Lawmakers established the commission to oversee and set standards for local jails in 1975, at a time when jails in Texas and nationwide faced lawsuits and federal intervention because of poor inmate conditions. In Texas, elected local sheriffs run county jails, and elected county judges and commissioners decide on the budget to operate those facilities. The law that created the commission requires the governor to appoint at least two county sheriffs (one urban, one rural), one county judge, one county commissioner and one doctor. The governor chooses the remaining four members from the public at large. None of the four current at-large commissioners whom Gov. Rick Perry has appointed work in law enforcement or related fields, though one, Jerry Lowry, has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. All of them have business-oriented backgrounds.

The commission decides, among other things, how many jailers each facility must have, what kind of standards the structures must adhere to, what safety protocols must be in place and the types of medical services that must be provided — even how many toilets and showers are required. Criminal justice advocates acknowledge that firsthand knowledge from sheriffs and county officials helps the commission as it wades into the nuts and bolts of jail operations. And they have been generally satisfied with the work of the current commission, particularly the staff. But they say those who run jails should not dominate the decision-making process for standards that could dramatically affect their own local budgets and working operations. “It’s just obvious to me, and to most people, that that is not going to result in real representative government,” Claitor says.

 

And, because law enforcement and county officials dominate the board, advocates worry that concerns about mental health, drug addiction and inmate conditions could get short shrift. About 16 percent of all Texas prisoners are mentally ill, according to a May study published by the Treatment Advocacy Center. In Harris County, officials report that 25 percent of inmates have some type of mental health problem — and that about 90 percent of mentally ill offenders wind up back in that county jail. But none of the current commissioners have expertise in mental health issues. “It’s very important to have a wide range of representation on any board” says Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, “but more importantly on boards in charge of overseeing such large quantities of facilities.”

Claitor and Yañez-Correa say they’d like to see the composition of the commission expanded to include, for instance, experts in mental health or academics who research jail conditions. They also believe the commission should include a former inmate or the family of an inmate. “Who better understands how conditions actually impact a person?” asks Yañez-Correa.

Muñoz says he’s not necessarily opposed to altering the makeup of the commission, but he doesn't think change is needed. He “emphatically” rejects any conflicts of interest among the commissioners, despite their dual roles as jail overseers and jail operators. When an issue comes up that directly affects the jail in a commissioner's county, he says, that member must abstain from voting. In the case of the Harris County Jail’s request for beds, Seale, the county medical director, won’t get to vote. “To me, it removes any conflict,” Muñoz says. 

Plus, he says, the commissioners who also work directly with county jails are keen to ensure that high standards are set, because it protects them against lawsuits over inmate conditions. “It lends itself to even more importance, because they’re looking at it from the perspective of relieving liability from their county,” he says. Although Muñoz concedes that having members from fields such as mental health might add value, he sees nothing wrong with the status quo. The at-large members of the commission, he says, represent the concerns of the general public, and advocates for inmates are always welcome to share input at commission meetings or directly with him. 

But as the population of imprisoned mentally ill Texans grows, particularly in facilities like the Harris County Jail — and Bexar County Jail, where seven inmates have committed suicide in the last year — advocates argue that the question of who regulates jails takes on a new urgency. State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, the chairman of the Texas House County Affairs Committee, says he worries that local jails are once again headed for lawsuits over shoddy mental health care — and potentially even federal takeovers. He plans to seriously consider revamping the commission's makeup during the 2011 legislative session, he says. “Texas has a bad reputation and a bad record,” he says, “and if not watched, we’ll get back to that place.”

 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.