Running a jail is a thankless job, said Adan Muñoz. He ought to know. He has been director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards since 2006, and before that he was Kleberg County Sheriff, where he was in charge of the local lockup.
The commission, with a budget of $1 million, is responsible for inspecting and overseeing conditions at all 245 county jails in Texas. After the budget-cutting legislative session this year, Muñoz and his tiny staff are figuring out how to do that with 7.5 percent less money than before.
Muñoz talked with the Tribune this week in his Austin office just blocks from the Capitol about how those reductions will affect the commission's work.
State officials aren't the only ones dealing with shrinking budgets, though, and Muñoz also talked about the challenges that county sheriffs and commissioners face in trying to keep their facilities safe while saving money. As some counties flirt with the idea of privatizing their jail services to deal with budget woes, Muñoz issued a cautionary warning. Private jails, he said, are a risky proposition, and sometimes leave counties with more debt than they bargained for.
But the biggest problem for all sheriffs, Muñoz said, is finding good staff who are willing to put up with the stress of jail work.
Below is an edited video of the interview; a transcript follows.
TT: What does the Jail Commission do?
Muñoz: Our main duty as a mission of this agency is to ensure that we inspect and ensure that all jails that we inspect are safe and secure and sanitary in the way they’re operated. Currently, we have 245 facilities that we inspect in Texas. Each inspection not only involves the care and protection of the inmate but also the care and protection of the facility, which is life-safety functions, generators, and fire alarms and things of this nature. The overall operation of the facility in a safe, secure and sanitary manner.
TT: How much did the Jail Commission budget get cut during the legislative session?
Muñoz: We were dealt a 7.5 percent overall cutback. I had the decision to make as to whether we were going to go line item by line item and include travel. And in making that judgment call, the hard decision was made that I needed to cut staff, because in order for me to completely function at what’s expected of us in this agency, my inspectors still have to travel. I had to cut three staff members. Now, the three staff members were obviously office people, because if I cut any of our inspectors, then certainly what would happen is we wouldn’t be able to accomplish our mission.
TT: What challenges are counties with privately operated jails facing?
Muñoz: They’ll build the facility above and beyond what is projected for the county's needs ... so that they can house either federal inmates or out-of-state inmates in order to generate a profit. What we have been seeing lately, over probably the last year and a half to two years, is a diminishing of those select inmates that are out there for profit. So you've got these facilities that are built and financed by local governments ... to bring in extra money for their communities at a time where those inmates were out there and available for these facilities. That's not the case anymore. A certain facility just went up for auction last week in this state, where that facility just basically got abandoned by the private vendor who says, "We’re not making any money, we’re moving." They can notify them and give them 60, 90 days, 30 days notification — whatever it is — and they’re gone. So the facility basically has to fall out of compliance or shut down. It’s a risky situation.
TT: How have counties dealt with overcrowding in their jails?
Muñoz: Sheriffs are not responsible for the overcrowding. It’s the court systems, the probation officers, the judges and things of this nature that have to process those individuals through the system in order for those individuals to get out of jail. GPS monitoring or any other aspect, personal recognizance bonds, things of this nature that counties were not applying before, now they are consistently doing so, including the counties like Harris County, Dallas County. They know that their incarceration rate is based on how quickly they can move those inmates out of those particular jails. That helps alleviate the problems, and when you have less prisoners, you've got less problems.
TT: What is the biggest challenge for sheriffs who run jails?
Muñoz: Hiring good detention officers — detention officers are probably one of the worst turnovers that we have in the state of Texas. It is a thankless job. It is a very thankless job. Whereas a police officer does the arrest or an officer out on the street makes an arrest and books him into a jail, that’s the last he may see of that individual until they go to court, if they go to court. That detention officer is in there having to deal with that individual who is hostile, who is mad, who is upset over being in jail. These guys hardly get paid anything. Now in the bigger cities such as Collin County or Harris County some of those facilities will pay very good money. But it's also compensated because they have a tremendous amount of overtime in order to make up for the lack of officers. No matter how big a facility, no matter how good a facility is run, you still sometimes, the majority of times, like especially in Harris County, just don’t have enough officers to go around, so you have to depend on overtime. Then overtime brings budgetary situations. Budgetary situations bring conflicts with commissioners court, and we see that throughout the state.
TT: Are counties in tough budget situations considering closing jail facilities?
Muñoz: If you run a small jail — when I say small jail, that's anywhere from seven to 25 prisoners — your daily incarceration may be seven or eight. So, are you better off shipping them off to the county next door rather than carrying the liability? Certainly. But when you have 11,000 prisoners like Harris County, it's real tough to get out of the jail business. For example, I know that Harris County has spoken of privatization. You really don’t have, in my opinion, you don’t have very many privates trying to do business with Harris, because where is their profit margin going to come from? I mean, if you have a $30 million debt of overtime you encumber or you accept as part of the privatization, where is your profit margin going to come from?
TT: What issues are ahead for the Jail Commission?
Muñoz: Those are the types of things I think we’re going to be seeing more and more of in the future, is life safety issues, structure of the facilities, making sure that they are safe and secure. These jails are seeing age on a yearly basis. And the jail isn’t like your house or my house. Your visitors and mine are welcome. They take care of our facility. These inmates at these facilities are not welcome inmates. They don’t take care of the toilets; they don’t take care of the fixtures. It’s not their home; they could care less. So the more they break, the more maintenance issues that jails have, so that’s also something to be concerned about. And with the hard economic times there are, with the counties working with less and less, a jail becomes less attractive to fix, because the general perception by the public is, "I don’t want to waste my tax money on a jail," because the majority of the population of folks out there don’t use a jail. They want to see a library, they want to see a park, they want to see an investment of their tax dollars that they can see. All folks that want to run for sheriff, the first thing that they learn once they get elected is "Holy Christ, what did I get myself into? Now I’ve got a jail to run."