Criminal Justice

Harris County Jail Employees File Federal Lawsuit Over Working Conditions

Deputies, detention officers and others say public safety is at risk if the county doesn’t provide funds for more staff.

The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston, on April 12, 2021.

Employees of the Harris County Jail filed a federal class-action lawsuit this week accusing the county of refusing to properly fund and staff the facility.

It asserts that as a result, employees are working extreme hours and mandatory overtime, which it says puts both them and jail inmates at risk and doesn't meet requirements set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

"There's so many knives and shanks that have been discovered, it's incredible that there's not more prisoners that have died and more employees that have not been stabbed," Harris County Deputies Organization President David Cuevas said.

He said due to the shortage, jailers are not even allowed bathroom breaks.

And the issue extends to outside of the jail as well, he said.

"They're now requiring our patrol deputies to help supplement our jails," Cuevas said. "That is creating a further violent risk out in the community."

The plaintiffs are jail supervisors, deputies, detention officers, medical officers and civilian personnel who have worked at the county jail in the past two years. They are identified only as John and Jane Does for fear of retaliation.

Named as defendants are Harris County, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, as well as County Judge Linda Hidalgo and each county commissioner.

The plaintiffs are not asking for monetary damages but for the county to provide sufficient funding and staffing for the jail and to implement "reasonable policies, procedures, and practices," such as bathroom and lunch breaks.

According to the lawsuit, whenever the employees have complained to the county about the conditions, their pleas were ignored.

"The only result of these attempts has been longer working hours and further intolerable conditions," it states.

Cuevas said the jail needs at least 500 additional deputies and detention officers.

According to the lawsuit, about 2,500 people currently work at the jail, including civilians. The total inmate population is around 9,000.

"This didn't happen overnight," Cuevas said. "But it's been manifesting and brewing over the last few years, and the current court is not addressing the issue."

When asked about the lawsuit on Houston Matters, Hidalgo acknowledged that jail overcrowding has been a problem. She blamed a backlog of criminal cases that started when Harvey flooded the courthouse in 2017 and was made worse by the pandemic.

"What we've done is we created a new court, a new felony court," she said. "We have brought on visiting judges, we have brought on associate judges, about 10-plus in total. Some of them have started, some of them are starting here in the next week or so. We have invested in funds for law enforcement to be able to process body cam footage. It used to take weeks."

Hidalgo called the lawsuit itself political and said the timing coincides with her reelection campaign.

"It was filed with the press before it was filed with the court," she said, alluding to an interview Cuellar did with local television about the lawsuit a day before it was filed. "So it just tells you it was a stunt-y political thing."

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, in an email, said the strain on the county's criminal justice system and public health system by the pandemic has been "unyielding and unprecedented."

"Everyone with a stake in ensuring Harris County public safety recognizes that our current trajectory is unsustainable," he continued. "We all understand we must do more to reduce violent crime, address the backlog of cases in our courts, and improve the working conditions of our dedicated public servants. As sheriff, I am committed to working with all partners on solutions that keep us safe."

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is the News 88.7 business reporter and also covers criminal justice, guns and shootings.Florian's stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of...

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