By Brandon Wood, Executive Director, Texas Commission on Jail Standards
For the most part, our job at the Texas Commission on Jail Standards hinges on communication – not halfhearted or insincere attempts at communicating, but real communication.
Whether it is in Austin or one of the far-flung corners across this huge state, I have had the opportunity to meet with hundreds of County Judges and Commissioners. The one trait that is common to all of you is the desire to serve your community and do what you think is best for your constituents. You are constantly trying to balance the wants and needs of various individuals and entities while at the same time ensuring that your county can operate with the funds that are available.
As the level of representation closest to the people, you have your finger on the pulse of what is expected from government. This is one of the main reasons that I pepper you with questions whenever I have the opportunity to speak with you. However, those questions come only after I have had a chance to listen and take in what it is you are saying. It is hard to listen when you are talking, and in order for this agency to make the best decisions possible, we have to have your input.
In today’s day and age, there are more ways than ever to communicate, and we seldom travel anywhere without our cell phones. Between phone, email, text or even old-fashioned mail and fax, we rarely have a valid excuse for the failure to communicate.
If at any point in time you have a question or concern with the Commission or how we have approached an issue, please contact me. The sooner I am made aware of a potential issue, the sooner I can address it. We are constantly evaluating ourselves in an attempt to provide the best service possible, but we know sometimes mistakes are made. Once problem areas are identified, we will correct them as quickly as possible. The key is identifying issues, whether through our own internal checks and balances or an outside party. What matters is that it gets done.
Lip service is one thing, but action is another. There are several examples I could cite where a county official has contacted me and we have resolved an issue. This often boils down to a willingness to work together. Now, if you call and tell me that you don’t think you should have to feed your inmates any more (yes, I have received that call), then we do not have much room to maneuver. Now, on to the more traditional topics covered in this article.
In the past, our most significant challenge has been staffing. But over the last few years, the issue of mental health has been cited just as often if not more so. That has not changed as we move into 2017. Actually, in a way these two issues are connected.
Jailers have cited insufficient training as a main concern, and this concern will no doubt grow as the number of inmates with mental health issues grows. If jails continue to serve as de facto mental facilities for our communities, and if staff is not trained to properly handle those inmates, the turnover rate will continue to hinder efficient jail operations. Something will have to change, and unfortunately I do not see fewer inmates with mental health issues in your jails as a realistic expectation. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but just in case, I would prepare for the current situation to become the new norm. In order for your jailers to function, they will have to have the resources to handle these types of inmates. Quality training and avenues for them to seek assistance in dealing with inmates, whether it be better working relationships with your Local Mental Health Authority or expanded levels of care and treatment, will have to be identified and provided. Counties across the state have been implementing different approaches in an attempt to manage this chaos with different levels of success. One of the best things that you can do is talk to your fellow Judges and Commissioners and find out what it is they are doing. If it is working, try to emulate that as there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. It could be and most likely will have to be modified to work within your own community, but not trying anything or hoping the status quo will suffice will only result in you being further behind the curve.
85th Texas Legislature
With the legislative session fast approaching, several topics that could possibly impact jails have been brought up. Mental health, of course, remains the most talked about, but others, such as the status of 17-year-old inmates along with jail diversion and re-entry planning, have come up. There have also been discussions regarding mandated protocols when dealing with inmates going through the detoxification process and the use of separation (isolation) cells at the county jail level. While these are not topics that we put forward – that is the domain of state representatives and state senators – we are often required to provide information when instructed to do so. That is why it is important you remain engaged in the legislative process and ensure that your position on any topic that could impact jail operations is known. Without active participation, others will assume everything is good and not look back.
Visit your County Jail
One thing that I always encourage Commissioners Courts to do if they have not already done so is to periodically take a walk through their county jail. It is most likely the single largest expense within your budget, and it only makes sense for you to know what you are paying for. While many of you do this already, for others it might be an eye opening experience; at the very least, it will provide you with a new level of familiarity with the issues you are being asked to decide upon. Additional insight is never a bad thing, and the ability to state, “I have been there,” lends credibility to your position as you discuss budgets each and every year.
As always, I would like to thank the staff of County Progress for reaching out to me and allowing me to submit an article. They have always gone out of their way to accommodate us; I greatly appreciate the opportunity to reach the largest audience possible, and this still remains one of the best ways to do so.
I look forward to working with you in the year to come. Once again, if you ever have any questions, suggestions or complaints, please do not hesitate to contact me at email@example.com.