Amid continued staffing shortages at the Harris County Jail, state regulators on Thursday said more incarcerated people must be moved out of the troubled facility.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, must present a plan by Dec. 1 to transfer an unknown number of inmates to other facilities, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
For each month the sheriff’s office does not comply, Wood said, the county jail will lose 144 so-called “variance beds” – beds beyond the capacity for which buildings were designed.
The order represents the first time in recent years the commission has ordered the sheriff’s office to shed its inmate population. Sheriff’s officials had previously voluntarily moved inmates out of the county.
“We’re reducing the number of variance beds that they’ve been provided, which will require them to house additional inmates out or get their staffing right,” Wood said. “The whole focus is ensuring that they have a sufficient number of staff. How will they make that happen? Well, they need to make it happen.”
Variance beds are beds placed in spaces not intended as sleeping quarters but renovated that way. The Harris County Jail has about 500, according to Jason Spencer, chief of staff at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
Wood said more people must be moved out of the facility because there aren’t enough detention officers to ensure that incarcerated people waiting to be processed aren’t in holding cells for more than 48 hours and that monitoring requirements are met.
He added that the number of vacancies at the jail has increased since the commission’s previous meeting in August. Spencer said the sheriff’s office is short 204 detention officers.
As of Thursday, there were 9,355 inmates in the Harris County Jail and more than 1,200 people housed in facilities in Garza County in northern Texas and at the LaSalle Correctional Center in Louisiana, according to the county’s data dashboard. The Harris County Jail facilities are designed to hold up to about 9,400 inmates, said Spencer.
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. However, 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.
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.
Wood said sheriff’s officials have rectified most of the violations identified by state regulators, but staffing shortages at the facility remain a concern.
Spencer said he is optimistic that a plan to move more inmates elsewhere can be finalized and presented to the county commissioner’s court by the end of November.
“It’s just a matter of identifying the best option for us in terms of price, location and the provider’s track record,” Spencer said.
Spencer said commissioners recently included a 12 percent pay increase for detention officers in their latest budget that took effect Oct. 1.
“We’re hopeful that that pay increase will help us to retain more people and slow down the pace at which we’re losing detention officers,” he said.
Spencer said Thursday’s quarterly meeting in Austin of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards was attended by sheriff’s officials, Commissioner Adrian Garcia, a representative from Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office and representatives from Harris Health, the county’s public health care system.
“I think we made it clear to the commission that everyone is pulling in the same direction and understands the importance of getting all these requirements. We’re making progress, and we have a plan,” Spencer said. “It’s not going to bring us immediately into compliance, but we’re optimistic that we’re going to get there.”