Criminal Justice

Harris County Jail continues to violate safety standards, state report says

After a weeklong inspection, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards determined that the jail would remain on a list of 13 non-complaint Texas jails. 


Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. Taken on Dec. 8, 2022.

After a weeklong inspection, the Harris County Jail was once again found to be noncompliant with statewide safety standards due to an inability to care for the facility’s ever-growing daily population because of a staffing shortage, officials said.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards determined that the jail would remain on a list of 13 non-complaint Texas jails after looking at 24 areas of review, including the facility’s admission and release process, healthcare and discipline practices.

Inspectors said jail staff failed to perform timely visual checks on detainees and routinely held people for too long before being booked, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

The inspection team also identified healthcare deficiencies during nonemergency situations and found two cases where inmates weren’t given their medicine on time.

In a statement, the sheriff’s office said inspectors found a “significant improvement” in overall cleanliness and that people in the jail “seemed to have a more positive disposition” than previously observed.

The jail has been considered noncompliant since September, after a state inspection found 64 people who remained in holding cells for an excess of 48 hours — which is prohibited by state law. In response, the sheriff's office began outsourcing more people to other facilities in North Texas and Louisiana in an effort to reduce overcrowding.

In December, the jail was once again found to be noncompliant after state inspectors found that medical staff failed to provide medication to an inmate who died in March 2022. In response, the county will now conduct internal audits to ensure that inmates are given their medication within 48 hours the order is approved.

The sheriff's office says they currently have around 150 vacant detention officer positions and about 100 vacant deputy positions assigned to the jail. Harris Health, which oversees healthcare in the jail, has also struggled to hire enough staff to meet demand, according to the sheriff's office.

In response to the TCJS’ most recent inspection, the sheriff’s office will need to send a corrective action plan back to the state within the next 30 days.

"We take the results of the inspection very seriously and appreciate the guidance.” Gonzalez said in a statement. "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."

However, jail reform advocates — like Krishnaveni Gundu, the executive director of the Texas Jail Project — are skeptical that the sheriff’s office will be able to make any meaningful changes.

“Let’s face it, the system is so overloaded and so over bloated, that it’s collapsing under its own weight,” Gundu said. “No amount of corrective actions within the jail system is going to help.”

This comes as the jail’s daily population continues to swell. The sheriff’s office has repeatedly laid blame on the county’s court backlog for worsening overcrowding and prolonging the length of stay for those in the jail.

"Unless the systems begin to move much quicker, then at the end of day, we're still going to continue to be grappling with the same thing," said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez in January. "In short, more people are coming into the jail system than are going out."

Gundu said the backlog would be eased if the Harris County District Attorney’s Office focused on dismissing felony cases older than nine months in an effort to depopulate the jail.

According to the sheriff’s office, the average length of stay in the Harris County Jail is more than 200 days — the national jail average of about 30 days. As of Sunday, there were 9,894 people in the jail and 1,048 people had been outsourced to jails, according to the Harris County Jail dashboard.

Along with the jail’s daily population, the in-custody death toll has also increased.

Last year, 27 people died with in custody — the highest number in nearly two decades, according to county records and data from Texas Justice Initiative. So far, at least four people have died while in custody this year.

The TCJS’ full report should be published in the coming days.

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Lucio Vasquez

Lucio Vasquez

Newscast Producer

Lucio Vasquez is a newscast producer at Houston Public Media, NPR’s affiliate station in Houston, Texas. Over the last two years, he's covered a wide range of topics, from politics and immigration to culture and the arts. Lately, Lucio has focused his reporting primarily on public safety and criminal justice...

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