Harris County will send up to 360 jail inmates to a Mississippi private prison under an $11.3 million contract approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday, nearly two weeks after state regulators ordered the county to move more people out of its congested lockup.

The county has struggled to ease jail overcrowding in the face of a backlog in its criminal courts. More than 70 percent of the 9,378 current inmates are awaiting trial, according to the county’s online jail population dashboard.

The agreement will begin Dec. 1 and last for one year, with an option to renew each year, for up to four years, under the same terms. The contract calls for the county to pay $85 per inmate per day to be held at Tallahatchie Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Commissioners Court unanimously approved the agreement.

County leaders said the contract is necessary to meet state jail regulations and “maintain a secure workspace for employees and safe living environment for inmates.” The Tallahatchie Correctional facility is “the only one” that has adequate staffing and bed space, according to the county administrator’s office.

“When we’re looking for potential facilities for outsourcing, we start with the closest and work our way out,” Harris County Sheriff’s Office chief of staff Jason Spencer said. “There’s not a lot of capacity out there in Texas right now for facilities that have the capacity and that are properly staffed to take on additional population.”

The state Commission on Jail Standards earlier this month told the county it had to move more people out of its crowded jail and gave the sheriff’s department until Dec. 1 to come up with a plan to transfer inmates to other facilities. 

Spencer said the county looked at proximity, price and track record while working with the county’s purchasing department to find the best fit. 

The Tallahatchie Correctional facility is a private prison run by CoreCivic, which operates more than 100 criminal justice facilities throughout the United States. The Tutwiler lockup is a medium-security facility that houses inmates from states as far as Vermont and South Carolina, as well as federal inmates. Inmates to be sent from Harris County generally will be those who do not have a court date in the near future, officials said.

“It doesn’t make any sense to send them out there for, you know, a week, and then bring them back,” Spencer said. 

The Tallahatchie facility is about 500 miles from Houston.

Asked if the Mississippi facility had a track record of proper care and security, Spencer said, “I would say there haven’t been any red flags that have been brought to our attention.” 

Texas Jail Project co-founder and executive director Krish Gunda disagreed, saying CoreCivic’s prisons have been “plagued by allegations of mistreatment and abuse.” CoreCivic’s prisons in Tennessee underwent a state audit in 2020 that revealed that correctional facility staff did not collect and accurately report data on inmate deaths, nor did they record allegations of sexual abuse and allegations in a timely manner. 

Gunda also pointed to the federal government’s move to end its use of private criminal detention facilities as a sign that the county should be apprehensive about working with the company.

“So, the (Federal Bureau of Prisons) stopped working with them, but somehow the Commissioner’s Court sees them as a responsible custodian for Harris County residents? I don’t understand that,” she said. 

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said “there’s no other option” other than to support the contract. She said she sympathizes with families who will face difficulties visiting their incarcerated loved ones and that she is “working to create other options for us and not just accept that as the answer.” 

“To those families, 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,” Hidalgo said. “It’s not going to be easy, I don’t have it yet. 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 to find one.” 

The contract requires CoreCivic to provide access to “reasonable visitation with family members.”

“Harris County’s preference is to also provide a video visitation solution for their inmates to visit families and friends,” the contract states.

That solution is not good enough, according to criminal defense attorney and former Harris County public defender Allison Mathis, who said the lack of in-person visitation can make it hard for families to understand what is happening to their loved ones in jail.

Video calls also can hamper the quality of the criminal defense Mathis said she can offer.

“I feel uncomfortable showing a client evidence in their case over a recorded, or even a seemingly unrecorded, video visit because I can’t trust that it won’t somehow be recorded,” she said. “I need to be able to have private, privileged, in-person conversations with my clients and I’m unable to do that when they’ve been shipped out.”

She said when clients are sent to other facilities, it becomes much more difficult to assess how well they are actually doing in jail.

Earlier this month marked the first time in recent years that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards ordered the sheriff’s office to reduce its inmate population. Previously, officials voluntarily moved them out of the county.

Harris County Jail in downtown Houston, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Houston. (Houston Landing file photo / Marie D. De Jesús)

The county jail is designed to hold around 9,400 inmates. As of Tuesday, there were 9,378 housed at the Harris County Jail and 1,336 at outsourced facilities, according to the county’s data dashboard.
Advocates long have complained about poor management and overcrowding at the jail, issues recently exacerbated by a backlog of cases in the Harris County criminal court system.

The Harris County Jail has been considered out of compliance with Texas’ minimum safety standards since Sept. 2022, when an inspection found dozens of incarcerated people waiting to be processed in holding cells for more than 48 hours, a violation of state code. Subsequent inspections identified failures to provide medical care, lax monitoring of a person who died in the jail and staffing shortages.

Sixty-three people have died at the jail since the beginning of 2021, including 14 so far this year. A recent Houston Landing investigation found that jail officials did not report the deaths of at least four inmates in that time frame who suffered medical emergencies in custody and later died. 

At the request of Hidalgo, the Office of the County Administration will provide an update on the county jail at each Commissioners Court meeting. On Tuesday, the court decided to focus efforts on prioritizing ways to reduce the length of jail stays, particularly for those charged with murder, in an effort to reduce the jail population. The county also will focus on the retention of detention officers.

“We want to provide a relief valve for the jails right now and then look at longer term issues,” said County Administrator Diana Ramirez. “And right now length of stay is one of the biggest problems.” 

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McKenna Oxenden is a reporter covering Harris County for the Houston Landing. She most recently had a yearlong fellowship at the New York Times on its breaking news team. A Baltimore native, she previously...

Akhil Ganesh is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for the Houston Landing. He was previously a local government watchdog reporter in Staunton, Virginia, where he focused on providing community-centric...