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Accountable to No One

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice oversees most state jails. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards presides over county jails. But the 350 city jails across Texas are wholly unregulated. The jail commission receives dozens of complaints about the conditions inside municipal lockups — most commonly about sanitation, food, supervision and medical care — but they have no power to investigate. While critics are calling on state lawmakers to implement at least minimum standards, city officials worry that expensive new rules could result in the closure of their jails, which would mean that already overflowing county jails would get even more crowded.

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When Edinburg City Jail inmate Joel de la Rosa shoved wet wads of toilet paper down his throat until he died in August, he became one of 25 Texas inmate to take his own life inside a municipal jail in the last five years.

The 18-year-old, who had tried to hang himself during a previous stay at the same jail, according to published reports, died in one of the state’s 350 completely unregulated city lockups. Since 2005, 66 people have died in those facilities, and nearly 40 percent of them, like de la Rosa, committed suicide, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

While county jails answer to the commission and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is responsible for state prisons, city jails are accountable to no higher authority. For decades, lawmakers have made tried in vain to bring accountability to city jails, and criminal justice advocates have pushed for oversight. Despite continuing deaths, threats of lawsuits over civil rights violations and reports of unseemly living conditions, they remain unmonitored.

City officials are wary of calls for increased oversight. While they don't say their jails are problem-free, they don’t want to be held to the same stringent state standards as larger county jails. James McLaughlin, the executive director and general counsel of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, says city jails are so small and inmates stay there for such short periods of time that it would be unrealistic to apply county jail standards to municipal facilities. Plus, he says, it would be expensive. “You’d see a lot of those [jails] shut down,” McLaughlin says.

At a recent meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, jail standards officials told lawmakers that city-run facilities should face more scrutiny. Currently, there are no monitored state standards in place for either construction of or conditions inside municipal jails. And there is no requirement that city jailers be trained or certified. Since 2007, the commission has received dozens of complaints about conditions in city jails, most commonly about sanitation, food, supervision and medical care. One of the most disturbing complaints the agency received was from an inmate who said that when she was arrested, an officer put her in a jail cell, handed her a cell phone and told her to call him if she needed anything. “The complainant was left locked in the jail cell with no supervision or contact … for three hours,” according to the commission's report to lawmakers.

With no authority over city jails, there’s nothing the commission can do about those complaints. County jails are another story. The commission responds to complaints and inspects each of the 245 facilities statewide on at least a yearly basis. County jails must meet basic safety codes for things like fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and ventilation systems. County jailers must be licensed, and the jail commission ensures that there are enough jailers on duty to supervise the inmates. The commission also regulates conditions in the facilities, ranging from the nutritional quality of food and the availability of adequate medical care to the type of bedding and mattresses in cells and the techniques used to restrain and discipline inmates. Lawmakers established the commission to oversee and set standards for county jails in 1975, at a time when lock-ups in Texas and nationwide faced lawsuits and federal intervention because of poor inmate conditions. The goal, at least in part, was to prevent that expensive legal wrangling.

Since then, lawmakers and advocacy groups have attempted to bring city jails under similar standards. Regulation proposals failed in 1979, 1981 and 1983. In 1983, legislators ordered the jail standards commission to study conditions in municipal jails and make recommendations for model standards. The commission uncovered disturbing conditions in some facilities, including a lack of supervision, sanitation, training, policies and procedures. In 1985, a bill that proposed giving the jail commission oversight of municipal facilities failed yet again after local officials said implementing the standards would be too expensive.

With the failure of any sort of regulation, criminal justice advocates and jail standards commission staff report that substandard conditions and deaths continue. At least one group is considering a lawsuit over alleged unhealthy conditions in the Harlingen city jail. Corinna Scheurich, the regional director of the South Texas Civil Rights Project, says she receives regular complaints that the jail doesn't provide necessary medical care, medication, nutrition or even basic toiletries. People report being held for days with no shower; women say they are not provided with sanitary napkins. “It’s ridiculous to try to hold people in jails that don’t meet basic jail standards,” Scheurich says. “A lot of times we’re talking about people who are there for very small infractions — not wearing a seatbelt, not paying a speeding ticket.” Harlingen Police Chief Daniel Castillo did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

If meeting the very basic jail standards set for county lock-ups would be too expensive for city jails, says Matt Simpson, policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, they probably aren’t safe enough to be operating at all. The standards don’t just protect detainees at the facilities, he says — requirements like testing inmates for tuberculosis and screening them for mental health conditions also protect jailers. Lawmakers should find a way to consolidate city and county jails and rely on the smaller, short-term facilities for processing instead of housing people, Simpson says. “Running jails is fundamentally expensive,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be easier for everyone involved?”

As they did in the 1980s, most municipal jail officials still contend that state regulation of their facilities is unnecessary and cost-prohibitive. At the Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing last week, Hedwig Village Police Chief Dave Barber told lawmakers that he might have to shut down his eight-cell lockup if he had to meet the same standards as county jails. His small town is a Houston suburb, and at most, he said, he has about two or three people at a time in the jail. The longest anyone can stay there, he said, is 56 hours.

With so few people in his jail, Barber said, it doesn’t make sense to hire a full-time, licensed jailer. Instead, he keeps a timer in the station that is set to ding every hour. When the timer dings, an officer walks back to check on the inmates. If all of the officers are out on patrol, the dispatcher checks on the jail. And he said his wards are fed three squares a day — each one a McDonald’s Happy Meal. “It’s embarrassing to tell you this,” Barber told the committee. “But this is the way that most of us operate.”

It may not be perfect, Barber told the committee, but keeping the jail is a necessity for Hedwig Village because it saves the city fees it would otherwise have to fork over to the Harris County Jail to house its offenders. And McLaughlin says that if municipal jails close, that would mean more inmates in county jails, which are already significantly overcrowded, particularly in urban areas. What's more, McLaughlin says, regulating city jails would be a significant cost for the state.

In their recent report to lawmakers, jail commission officials estimated that the agency would need more than $390,000 per year to inspect and monitor city jails. The tiny agency is already overburdened: It has just five jail monitors who must make at least one visit a year to each county jail. Taking on city jails would require six new full-time monitors, says Brandon Wood, the commission's assistant director, and it would take the agency about two years to perform just the initial inspections.

In lieu of regulation — which most agree remains a far-fetched possibility, despite the dozens of deaths and complaints about conditions — the jail commission recommended some best practices that city facilities should adopt. Their suggestions include limiting inmate stays to 72 hours, requiring training for jailers, adopting the minimum standards required for county jails, implementing intake screening and allowing independent jail audits. 

If state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, were in charge of the state budget, he says he would probably see to it that enough resources were available to put some review process in place for city jails. But Whitmire’s not in charge of the budget — he chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee — and lawmakers are facing a $21 billion budget hole in 2011. Republican state leaders are looking for cuts, not bigger expenditures. Combine the budget woes with the political power of city leaders and police chiefs who oppose municipal jail regulation and Whitmire says he has no expectation that those facilities will face more accountability anytime soon. “If there are abuses, we have remedies,” he says. “We have civil rights laws. We have Texas Rangers. We have investigative bodies.”

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Courts Criminal justice State government John Whitmire State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice