Harris County Jails Not Meeting State Standards

Harris County jails failed to meet state standards for prisoner to guard ratios. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, the county says the problem is one of staffing and not over-crowding.

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For the third consecutive year, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found Harris County in violation of state-mandated staffing ratios. Texas requires jails to staff one guard for 48 inmates. Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas says the county has reduced the number of inmates significantly from last year.

"We feel like we've been working very diligently on this. We think there are some problems that certainly -- this is a criminal justice issue and not just a Harris County Sheriff's Office issue, it involves a lot of entities. As a matter of fact, I've been in contact with the Governor's office yesterday and I plan to meet with him next week to try to get maybe some help along the lines of some of those problems we're dealing with as far as the state's concerned."

Thomas says the county is housing more than 1,100 state jail felons and if those people were removed, the county would be well within compliance. But he says a flaw in the criminal justice system means those inmates stay here taking up bed space.

"These inmates have figured out if they -- if they wait and put the pressure on us that they will not plead to a state jail -- they will set here long enough that we will offer them some kind of plea bargain and they will cop to county jail time."

Harris County houses more than 9,000 inmates and as many as 500 of them might have to be sent to other county jails to fall into compliance. But Thomas says he would prefer to bring in more deputies and use overtime to increase the prisoner to guard ratio.

"We think that probably utilizing overtime it would be cheaper for us or on the county to utilize overtime rather than send these inmates to other facilities but that's just -- that's our numbers -- number-crunchers are looking at that."

The Harris County Commissioners' Court already approved $3 million in overtime dollars for the jails. Thomas says it could cost about $20 million a year to pay for the overtime until the department adds more staff. Last August the Sheriff's office was approved to hire 120 officers, about half of those positions have been filled.

"That's a national problem. I've talked with other sheriffs, police chiefs and things throughout the nation, some of the organizations I'm a member of -- and it's a -- finding qualified applicants is a problem."

Thomas refuted reports of severe overcrowding in the jails. He also says the county has not received an outsourcing order to relocate inmates and will ask for 90 days to bring the jails into compliance with the state commission. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.

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