Harris County Jail
Harris County Jail Credit: Lucio Vasquez/Houston Public Media

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards recently completed a weeklong comprehensive inspection of the Harris County Jail.

The inspection encompassed 24 areas of review, including the admission and release process, health services, supervision, discipline, exercise, education, commissary and visitation. Inspectors determined the jail, which houses about 10,000 people, will remain on a list of 13 Texas jails that are in non-compliance.

The Sheriff’s Office will now draft a corrective action plan that is due in 30 days.

Inspectors said the jail needs more staff to properly serve the people ordered into custody by local judges.

“Harris County Jail is a deathtrap, and it seems no one connected to it chooses to recognize the humanity those in jail still possess,” said Ray Chapman, a construction worker who lives in Pearland. “Just because the people behind bars in that place have been accused of a crime, doesn’t mean they’re guilty. And guilty or not, they still deserve to be treated like human beings.”

Recently, civil rights attorney Ben Crump came to Houston and joined with family members of inmates who died while in custody at the jail, to call on the Department of Justice to investigate the significant trend in deaths at the Harris County jail.

“If that were your loved one, you’d say, ‘shut this down until you can guarantee us that my loved one isn’t going to die at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect them,’” said Crump. “Politicians can’t keep hiding behind words like it’s systemic, that we have an investigation going on.”

Prior to that, local activist Quanell X joined with individuals who had relatives die while in the Harris County Jail.

“We are calling on Commissioners Court to investigate the allegations of abuse, murder and wrongdoing in the Harris County jail,” said Quanell X. “We cannot trust them to investigate themselves. We want an outside agency that’s paid by the Commissioner’s Court of Harris County to investigate all these deaths, killing and beatings in the Harris County Jail.”

Quanell X and others were seeking investigative eyes coming from outside of the state’s criminal justice system. In other words, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ “comprehensive inspection” fell short of what he, Crump and others demanded.

Still, the report was revealing even though it did not directly address the fact that 30-plus individuals have died in the Harris County Jail in the past 12 months.

The Sheriff’s Office currently has about 150 vacant positions for detention officers and about 100 vacant positions for deputies assigned to the jail, for a total of about 250 unfilled positions. Harris Health, which has been overseeing the delivery of medical care in the jail since last March, has also struggled to hire enough nurses and other providers to meet demand.

Harris Health employs contract labor to offset the current staffing needs. Mental health services in the jail are provided by the Harris Center for Mental Health.

These staffing issues coincide with a jail population that is at its highest point in over a decade because of a massive backlog of criminal cases pending in Harris County courts.

“Today, the average person spends more than 200 days in the Harris County Jail, compared to the national jail average of about 30 days.” (PULLQUOTE)

Today, the average person spends more than 200 days in the Harris County Jail, compared to the national jail average of about 30 days. Nearly 1,000 defendants have been outsourced to jails in North Texas and in Louisiana in an effort to reduce crowding.

The jail did not meet the compliance standard that requires staff to consistently perform visual checks on people in the jail within the required time. Inspectors also noted that people who are being booked into jail are often waiting too long before they are assigned to a cell.

The inspection team identified deficiencies in health care services provided to triaging non-emergent sick call requests. Inspectors also identified two cases where prescribed medications were not delivered on time

We take the results of the inspection very seriously and appreciate the guidance. We are actively working in all areas of our detentions system to put corrective plans in place and with proper staffing to handle the overcrowded jail population, we can promptly address the deficiencies,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

Inspectors did identify several areas of improvement since their last visit.

Specifically, they reported significant improvement in overall cleanliness, and that people in the jail seemed to have a more positive disposition than they had observed in the past.

A full inspection report will be published by the Commission in the coming days.

Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...