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Year in Review: County officials invested millions into the Harris County Jail as challenges persist

Despite investing millions of dollars, county officials continue to feel pressure from jail reform advocates and community members who’ve lost loved ones within the overcrowded facility.

The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. Taken on Dec. 19, 2023.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. Taken on Dec. 19, 2023.

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A national spotlight has been focused on the Harris County Jail as the overcrowded facility continues to struggle with violence, death and drug smuggling.

Over the course of 2023, officials poured millions of dollars into the county’s jail system to address a list of challenges within the troubled facility. However, according to jail reform advocates, the county’s investments may have allowed a culture of abuse to remain unchecked within the Harris County Jail.

“A place of torment and punishment”

On New Year’s Day, Jacoby Pillow was booked into the Harris County Jail after being charged with trespassing — a misdemeanor offense. He was set to be released two days later on a $100 personal bond, but police say that never happened because Pillow allegedly assaulted a detention officer.

After an altercation with jail staff, Pillow was brought back to his cell, where he was later found unresponsive. He died in a nearby hospital later that same day.

Pillow was the first person to reportedly die while in custody at the Harris County Jail this year. In the months that followed, the death toll gradually grew.

A month later, the FBI announced they had opened an investigation into Pillow’s death, along with the 2021 death of Jaquaree Simmons, who was allegedly beaten by several detention officers — one of whom was charged with manslaughter.

The brutality that's been reported in the jail is detailed in several lawsuits, including a federal suit filed in August on behalf of people who've had family members booked into the jail, along with several formerly incarcerated people. The lawsuit accuses officials of failing to provide adequate medical care while perpetuating a culture of abuse and violence within the jail, allowing the troubled facility to "become a place of torment and punishment."

"This pattern does not end with simply those who lost their lives but extends to each of those individuals who have suffered needless and numerous beatings, lack of medical attention, and whose cries for help were silenced by their captors," the lawsuit read. "These individuals deserve humanity, and they deserve life."

As of Tuesday, at least 19 people have died while in custody so far this year. This comes after a record-number of in-custody deaths in 2022, when at least 27 people lost their lives — the highest number in nearly two decades, according to county records and data from the Texas Justice Initiative.

Violating statewide safety standards for more than a year

Since Sept. 7, 2022, the Harris County Jail has continuously violated statewide safety standards for not providing timely medical care, keeping people in holding cells for longer than the legal limit and insufficient staffing levels within the facility.

Officials with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards have repeatedly warned the county that they could face state intervention if the problems within the troubled facility weren’t remedied.

The commission issued a remedial order more than 200 days ago focused specifically on the county’s inability to consistently maintain the state-mandated ratio of one detention officer per 48 people held in the jail. Brandon Wood, the executive director of the commission, previously told Houston Public Media that he believed understaffing was the catalyst for the jail's handful of safety violations.

"They're still struggling with providing a sufficient number of staffing," Wood said last month. "If they don't have enough officers for the number of inmates they have, then they need to reduce the number of inmates, or they need to provide more staffing."

During the Texas Commission on Jail Standards' quarterly meeting in November, the commission threatened to reduce the jail's capacity if staffing levels weren't stabilized. If issues within the jail continue to persist, Wood said the commission would likely refer to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for stricter enforcement.

Understaffing or over-incarceration?

While local and state officials blame insufficient staffing levels for the facility’s problems, jail reform advocates say the issues actually stem from the number of people being held in jail as they wait for their day in court.

On average, people spend nearly 200 days in the Harris County Jail, according to county data. In comparison, the national average length of stay in 2021 was about 30 days, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

For years now, advocates like Krishnaveni Gundu, the executive director of the Texas Jail Project, have pushed county officials to lower the jail population by dismissing nonviolent low-level charges.

Gundu has previously pointed towards a Justice Management Institute report published in 2020, which recommended the Harris County District Attorney's Office make "uncomfortable, but necessary changes" by dismissing "all non-violent felony cases older than nine months" in order to alleviate the growing number of pending cases. The report found that of all the county's felony cases in 2019, about 57% were either dropped or deferred.

“That would immediately take the pressure off the system, both the court backlog and the jail overcrowding,” Gundu said. “That dismissal has to come from the DA’s office.”

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Earlier this year, District Attorney Kim Ogg said that the JMI’s recommendation was “an unrealistic solution," and has instead pushed for more prosecutors and courts to expedite the county's lingering cases, which surpasses more than 100,000 cases in both criminal and civil court, according to the county’s district court dashboard.

In September, Commissioners Court opted to focus their efforts on bolstering the sheriff’s office with more money after approving 12% salary increases for detention officers, which has been in place for a little over a month.

According to Jason Spencer, the chief of staff at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, it's too “early to say whether it has had any impact on retention or recruiting.” As of now, Spencer says there are still about 150 detention officer vacancies in the jail — a reduction compared to previous months.

Additionally, the sheriff's office got funding to hire five Jail Population Specialists, who've been tasked with identifying stagnant cases to expedite the court process and depopulate the facility.

People detained inside the Harris County Jail. Taken on July 25, 2019.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
People detained inside the Harris County Jail. Taken on July 25, 2019.

Harris County's continued reliance on outsourcing

As the jail's daily population continued to hover around maximum capacity throughout the year, county officials repeatedly stressed that they didn't believe outsourcing was a sustainable solution. However, just last month, commissioners court approved yet another contract to send a few hundred more people to a private facility outside of Harris County.

As of Tuesday, there were 9,024 people in the county's custody, but 1,330 of those people were already being outsourced to private facilities in Louisiana, Northwest Texas and Beaumont, according to the county's jail dashboard. By mid-January, about 300 more people will be held in the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, a privately owned medium-security prison located 500 miles from Houston and operated by CoreCivic, which manages more than 110 facilities across the country.

According to County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the agreement was necessary to make progress toward complying with state safety standards. Still, Hidalgo added that they'll continue to work towards a more concrete solution for families who’ll be further separated from incarcerated loved ones.

“It breaks my heart and I wish we didn’t have to do it, and I’m hoping to honor them by figuring out a solution,” she said. “It’s a little scary to say ‘I’m working on one' and I don’t know if we’re going to find one, but I’m going to try my hardest in finding one.”

Jail reform advocates — like Krishnaveni Gundu with the Texas Jail Project — believe expanding the county's outsourcing efforts would be comparable to putting "a Band-Aid on cancer."

"There is absolutely no imagination for some creative problem-solving here," Gundu said after the contract was approved. "The court backlog is going to increase, and that's because every time you have to bring somebody back from that distance, it takes longer. And the more you delay, the more the prosecutors keep changing on the case...so every time the prosecutor changes, the court dates get reset."

Transparency and stricter security

In an effort to improve accountability and transparency in the jail, county officials also approved funding for body cameras, which detention officers recently began wearing.

According to Spencer, the sheriff's office is hopeful that the cameras “will promote public trust through greater transparency.” However, Gundu says the investment is “a complete distraction.”

Advocates have previously criticized the sheriff's office over a lack of transparency regarding in-custody deaths and have demanded the release of security footage to shed light on incidents that occur behind closed doors.

“I don’t know how the body cameras are going to fix the population and the overcrowding issue,” Gundu said. “What is the point of these other body cameras that you’re going to start using? We can’t trust you to release what you already have.”

Along with the body cameras, officials are also stricter with screening visitors to the jail, citing the recent influx of drugs into the facility. Just last month, a Houston attorney and a detention officer were both arrested for allegedly smuggling drugs into the jail. The arrests were part of a multi-month investigation that may result in more charges being filed.

Security footage shows defense attorney Ronald Lewis inside the Harris County Jail. Lewis is accused of smuggling drug-laced papers into the facility.
Courtesy of the Harris County Sheriff's Office
Security footage shows defense attorney Ronald Lewis inside the Harris County Jail. Lewis is accused of smuggling drug-laced papers into the facility.

In response to the rise of drug smuggling, the sheriff’s office has increased the number of drug dogs in the jail and has begun photocopying incoming mail and documents.

“We continue to employ tougher screening measures for employees, contractors and visitors in our effort to eliminate contraband, particularly dangerous narcotics, from the jail,” Spencer said.

As of now, autopsies for a number of this year’s in-custody deaths are still pending, so the official cause of death for a majority of the people who’ve died this year remains undetermined. However, authorities believe 28-year-old Christian Rayo died hours after snorting an unknown substance last month, although his official cause of death is still pending. Over the course of 2022, at least four people died due to drug-related causes while in custody.

Moving forward

As the year comes to a close, the county’s engineering department continues to conduct a study analyzing the jail's infrastructure, which will also include recommendations for potential upgrades. The study should be complete by the end of January.

Additionally, the Office of the County Administration recently began providing an update about the jail and the county's retention efforts during each Commissioners Court meeting.

Jason Spencer with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office says this year's investments will go a long way toward making the jail safer.

“When the jail commission comes back and does their next comprehensive evaluation of our operation in the coming months, we’re optimistic that we’re going to pass,” Spencer said.

The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. Taken on Dec. 19, 2023.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. Taken on Dec. 19, 2023.