Criminal Justice

Head of Harris County Jail resigns as death toll increases amid overcrowding issues

In a letter sent to Sheriff Ed Gonzalez on Monday, Shannon Herklotz, the assistant chief for detentions command, wrote that a change in leadership priorities is what ultimately led to his resignation. 

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. Taken on Dec. 8, 2022.

The head of Harris County Jail is stepping down as the jail’s daily population continues to hover close to maximum capacity, leading to a record number in-custody deaths last year.

In a letter sent to Sheriff Ed Gonzalez on Monday, Shannon Herklotz, the assistant chief for detentions command, wrote that he had “pushed [himself] to the new limits” since taking the helm at Harris County Jail two years ago.

Herklotz wrote that a change in leadership priorities from Gonzalez and Chief Deputy Mike Lee, who’s responsible for overseeing daily operations at the Sheriff’s Office, is what ultimately led to his resignation.

“I feel that you and Chief Lee want to move in a new direction and I do not feel as I have a place in that vision,” Herklotz wrote. “I respect your decision(s).”

Over his two-year tenure, Herklotz wrote that jail staff were confronted with overcrowding issues within the facility that’ve been worsened by Harris County’s court backlog, which began in 2017 after damage from Hurricane Harvey closed the county’s criminal courthouse for nearly a year.

As of Wednesday, there were 10,082 people in the jail, according to the Harris County Jail dashboard.

Herklotz added that the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing deficiencies to counteract of the jail’s bloated population and the jail’s transition to Harris Health for medical care also poised challenges for the department.

These challenges led to a record number of deaths within the jail last year. At least 27 people died while in custody in 2022 — the highest number in nearly two decades, according to county records and data from Texas Justice Initiative.

Days after the new year began, two more people died in the jail, including a 31-year-old man who was set to be released on a $100 personal bond.

Along with the court backlog, jail reform advocates have blamed overcrowding within the jail on Senate Bill 6, which bans cashless bail for those charged with a felony. Critics like Gabriela Barahona, the director of advocacy and education at the Texas Jail Project, say the law keeps low-income defendants behind bars.

“Given the pattern and pervasiveness of this level of abuse, we hesitate to recommend reforms beyond depopulating the jail itself,” Barahona said.

Herklotz will officially step down on Jan. 20.

Read Herklotz’s resignation letter to Sheriff Ed Gonzalez below:

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