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The Big House Isn't Big Enough

At today's hearing of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Sheriff Adrian Garcia will be grilled about efforts to control overcrowding at Harris County's four jail facilities, which have seen a dramatic population spike. At the urging of Houston lawmakers, Garcia will be pressed to explain why he wants to keep housing more inmates than the facilities can accommodate, and why some recommendations by the county's own consultant for ways to reduce its jail population have gone unheeded.

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A group of Houston area lawmakers wants the state commission that oversees local jails to grill Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia about his persistently overcrowded jail facilities.

“The current sheriff inherited a complete mess in terms of an old-fashioned attitude about how to do things, and conditions that were so overcrowded it prompted the feds to come in,” says state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “I want to make sure we have measurable progress.”

The inmate population in Harris County’s four facilities grew dramatically over a five-year period: from about 7,600 inmates in 2004 to more than 11,500 in 2009. Much of that increase stems from a spike in drug arrests, according to one report, which also noted a large population of mentally ill inmates. The county is so short on space that it farms out more than 1,500 inmates to jails in other Texas counties and in Louisiana. The U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether inmates’ civil rights were being violated by conditions in the county's jails after about 20 inmates died or were injured in 2007 and 2008.

Amid the controversy, there have been reforms, calls for more reforms, a commission to recommend reforms and efforts to build new jails. The jail population has fallen some since Garcia was elected in 2008, but the county's facilities remain over capacity — and there continue to be inmate deaths, though fewer over time than before. At a meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards today, Garcia will be asked to explain why Harris County is again seeking permission to house more inmates than its jails are meant to accommodate.

Ellis and state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, along with Democratic state Reps. Carol Alvarado, Ellen Cohen, Garnet Coleman, Al Edwards, Senfronia Thompson and Sylvester Turner, all of Houston, wrote to jail commission executive director Adan Muñoz last week to express their concern. “The overcrowding could lead to a lawsuit, Department of Justice oversight, or an inmate death,” the lawmakers wrote. Instead of working to reduce jail population, they maintain, Harris County officials repeatedly have asked permission for temporary beds. 

More prisoners, more deaths

The spike in Harris County’s inmate population and its requests for relief started in about 2005, when officials asked the commission for permission to install 850 additional beds in three facilities. The county reasoned that it needed more beds to contend with the growing inmate population, but it also was having trouble getting and keeping qualified jailers. State standards require one jailer for every 48 inmates and at least one jailer per floor with 10 inmates or more. Since that initial request, Harris County has asked for and received up to 2,064 variance beds — though that number has decreased since 2007. The counties facilities are designed to house up to 9,400 inmates, but the jail population soared in early 2009 to 11,500 — nearly 20 percent above capacity.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division inspected Harris County’s facilities in July and August of 2008 and about a year later issued a report that said the jail complied with constitutional requirements. But investigators also reported they were alarmed by the number of deaths that resulted from inadequate medical care. More than 20 inmates had died or were injured in Harris County jail facilities in 2007 and 2008, according to the report. Investigators said medical and mental health care at the facilities were inadequate and that inmates were not protected from physical harm and safety hazards. They were particularly concerned about a January 2008 death in which the autopsy report indicated the inmate was choked to death by staff. “Our review of the jail’s records suggests that such improper force technique is being used with troubling frequency,” the report said.

As the Justice Department conducted its investigation, Harris County asked its own consultant to review its criminal justice system. In June 2009, the Justice Management Institute issued a report concluding that the jail had become a repository for the mentally ill and drug addicted. “There are overcrowded jail conditions, with about 25 percent of the inmates, or over 2,500, having a mental health problem, making the jail in Harris County the largest facility in the state that provides mental health services,” the report stated. The institute made a slew of recommendations for ways the county could reduce its jail population, including implementing cite-and-release policies for minor, nonviolent offenses, using alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill and drug offenders with minor offenses and providing a more generous “good time” policy (taking more days off an inmates sentence for work or other positive behavior). 

Budding reforms

County officials have put some of those recommendations in place, and they established a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to focus on reducing the jail population. Instead of jailing anyone caught with trace amounts of drugs, the Harris County District Attorney’s office in January started issuing Class C misdemeanor charges, which are ticketable, non-jailable offenses. And there are efforts underway to establish new alternative adjudication for the mentally ill and drug addicted.

In a letter to Ellis and the other Houston lawmakers, Garcia noted changes he's made since last year, including a three-for-one credit program that allows some inmates to get three days off their sentence for each day of work or good time. More than 950 inmates are eligible for the credit; 180 have been released after participating in the program.

Since last year, the inmate population at the Harris County Jail has fallen. According to jail commission data, in June there were 8,726 inmates in local facilities and another 1,570 housed in other counties or in Louisiana. The facilities are over capacity by only 6 percent, according to Garcia. And fewer inmates are dying in custody: nine since September of 2009, including one who died of a pulmonary embolism while at a Louisiana facility. After that death, Garcia stopped sending inmates out of state and asked investigators to determine whether the death was the result of systemic problems, says Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the sheriff. When they determined the death was an isolated incident, he says, the transfers resumed, and now 597 Harris County inmates are housed in Louisiana. 

Garcia has asked the commission to renew his request for about 1,600 additional beds — about 400 fewer than the county needed in 2007. Although the county doesn’t regularly use all of the extra beds, Bernstein says the additional capacity gives officials flexibility. And once the county finishes an electrical upgrade in one of its facilities next spring, all the additional beds may not be necessary. “In the future, we hope to not need as many,” Bernstein says. “The hopes for that aren’t mainly based on population or even crime rate — they’re based on policies that will help us reduce population.”

Sense of urgency

But not all of the policy recommendations from the Justice Management Institute have been adopted, and lawmakers say they want the commission to put pressure on the county to fix the jail problem even faster. “We have had a long-standing problem here in Harris County with overcrowding,” Coleman says. “That’s created, at times, an atmosphere of danger for inmates.”

One recommendation that remains unheeded is the cite-and-release policy. In 2007, legislators gave counties the authority to issue citations instead of making arrests for some Class B misdemeanors like low-level marijuana possession, criminal mischief and graffiti. A few Texas agencies, including the Travis County Sheriff and Austin Police Department, have embraced cite and release. In his letter to lawmakers, Garcia wrote that he's considering joining them. But it wouldn’t make much difference in the population, he wrote, unless the Houston Police Department also implemented the policy, because that's where about 60 percent of the Harris County jail inmates originate.   

The sheriff’s department can’t fix the problem all on its own, Bernstein says. State policies that keep felons and state jail offenders in the local jail for weeks or months while they await trial or transport to another facility contribute hundreds of inmates, and more state money for programs that help treat the mentally ill would go a long way to keeping low-level offenders out of jail. Garcia is as eager as local lawmakers to see problems at the jail resolved, Bernstein says. “There’s often a temptation to put the pressure on one small segment of a very wide, broad system,” he says.

Muñoz, the jail commission executive director, says the nine-member commission won’t decide until November whether to grant Harris County permission to keep their extra beds. Today’s hearing, he says, is a preview of more debate to come.

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Courts Criminal justice Carol Alvarado Garnet Coleman Rodney Ellis Senfronia Thompson