The Harris County Jail remains out of compliance with Texas’ minimum safety standards, prompting state regulators to suggest Thursday that more incarcerated people could be moved out of the troubled facility.
Texas Commission on Jail Standards officials said the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, has not adequately addressed compliance failures first flagged in September 2022.
The initial inspection found dozens of incarcerated people waiting to be processed in holding cells for more than 48 hours, a violation of state code. Follow-up inspections identified failures to provide medical care, lax monitoring of a person who died in the jail and staffing shortages.
Sixty people have died at the jail since the beginning of 2021, including 10 so far this year. Advocates have complained for years about poor management and overcrowding at the jail, issues recently exacerbated by a backlog of cases in the Harris County criminal court system.
Brandon Wood, the executive director of TCJS, said a June inspection identified additional problems, though he did not specify them during a public meeting Thursday in Austin. A TCJS spokesperson did not return messages seeking a request for comment on the new issues.
The most recent inspection does indicate that Harris County is taking steps to remedy previously identified problems, Wood added.
Wood said the jail will be subject to an unannounced inspection in the “very near future,” and that the Sheriff’s Office must provide a plan of action to address the issues the TCJS has identified. The Harris County Jail also will face “escalated and enhanced enforcement” due to two failed inspections in a 12-month period, Wood said.
In the meantime, Wood said the commission will explore whether to recommend more people be transferred to other facilities. As of Thursday, there were 9,379 people in the Harris County Jail and more than 1,200 people housed in other facilities, according to the county’s data dashboard.
“I know that may not be a popular approach, but we need Harris County back in compliance,” Wood said. “And if that means additional inmates being housed out in order to do so, that is something we have no issue with recommending.”
Phillip Bosquez, interim assistant chief of detentions command at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency has taken steps to address the deficiencies identified by the commission.
Bosquez said less than 1 percent of incarcerated people were kept in holding cells for more than 48 hours in July, one of the compliance issues identified by state officials. In addition, more medical providers have been added and jail staffers have made progress in performing timely checks on people, he said.
“We feel that out of the six or seven (compliance violations) spread among the four reports that are currently on the jail commission’s website, that we’ve addressed about five or six,” Bosquez said. “We feel confident that we will be reaching out for a review on those to get back in compliance on those issues.”
Bosquez attributed the compliance violations to a rising jail population and staff turnover. He noted that sheriff’s officials are talking with county commissioners about boosting bonuses for jail detention officers, who currently receive $1,000 for every six months on the job.
“I think we’re facing the same problem that we see across the state and the nation when we talk to jails (when it comes to) staffing and having trained, qualified officers coming in,” Bosquez said. “When they do come in, they’re not staying around long.”
Wood added that the TCJS might look into whether the amount of time it’s taking the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to approve charges after arrests is “hindering the process and creating unnecessary bottlenecks.”
“I don’t know what a solution on that would be, but I think it needs to be looked at,” Wood said.
Several relatives whose loved ones died while in custody at the Harris County Jail implored the commission Thursday to improve conditions there.
Tracy Woodson-Smith said she’s still looking for answers after her son, Kevin Smith Jr., died in the custody of the jail while awaiting prosecution on a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child. Woodson-Smith said an autopsy determined her son died of a heart attack.
“Anything is possible, but a 23-year-old having a heart attack is abnormal,” Woodson-Smith said.
The Houston Police Department is investigating the circumstances surrounding Kevin Smith Jr.’s death, ABC13 reported in January.
Woodson-Smith said she struggles to explain to her 2-year-old granddaughter where her father is.
“The only thing I’m left to say is, ‘Baby, it’ll get better. He’ll call one day,’” Woodson-Smith said.