County Progress asked Adan Munoz, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), to address some of the relevant issues facing county jails.
Q: With no new prisons in almost 10 years, Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) units are once again overflowing. What needs to be done to prevent a backlog of state inmates in county jails?
A: County sheriffs and county commissioners need to continue to work with their respective state legislators to formulate legislation that steps up the process for the removal of paper-ready inmates to TDCJ.
Preferably in less than 45 days
Once paper-ready inmates reach more than 10 percent of jail capacity, the state should be required to accept paper-ready inmates.
TDCJ should contract for beds with counties and private vendors to prevent the overflow in county jails.
Q: What is the current blue warrant status?
A: If a parolee is arrested on a technical violation, new charge or combination, then that parolee stays in the county jail until the case is disposed of and is not eligible for bond. Our monthly snapshot of inmate population in September 2007 showed 2,515 parole (technical) violators with an additional 2,991 parole violators with new charges, or 6.4 percent of the total county inmate population. These numbers are fairly consistent from month to month.
Q: The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study last year indicating that more than half of all prison and jail inmates have a mental health issue. What can counties do to address this problem?
A: County jails are required to perform a basic Suicide/Mental Disabilities Screening on each inmate immediately upon intake. Jails are also required to submit inmate information on recently admitted inmates to the local mental health authority for comparison against the Department of State Health Services C.A.R.E. database to determine which inmates have a prior history of mental health issues. While neither the screening nor the cross-referencing is designed to replace a clinical evaluation, they can be very effective tools in determining how an inmate is to be supervised while in custody. Local mental health authorities are not required to assist jails in caring for inmates, but may, on occasion, offer support to the jail. Most local mental health authorities will contract with counties to provide services and medication to jailed inmates with mental health issues.
Another thing that counties can do is to notify the court system of the inmates who have mental disabilities. This can sometimes expedite the adjudicative process and can result in the inmate getting care from providers better suited to address mental health needs.
Q: Did the 80th Legislature pass any new statutes that affect TCJS and Texas county jails?
A: Unlike the 79th Legislative Session, the 80th Session did not see a lot of new laws that directly affect jails. However, one notable law was House Bill 1780, which changed the requirement that counties submit audits of the jail commissary from quarterly to once a year. This should result in less time spent by counties conducting the audit. Counties that wish to continue submitting audits more frequently than once a year are still free to do so.
Q: What can counties do to ensure safe and secure county jails?
A: Hiring qualified and dedicated personnel is the most significant factor. Without the eyes and ears of professional detention officers, any and all jails will lack the ability to consistently stay in compliance.
Preventative maintenance should not be neglected and is a must when it comes to ensuring the safety and security of a facility. Allowing a facility to deteriorate to the point where it costs almost more to repair than to replace is indicative of the overall operations of the facility. Staff and inmates who are forced to operate and live in a facility that is in disrepair tend to be more confrontational, which leads to additional problems, all of which wind up costing the county money that they can ill afford to spend. I would urge county officials to conduct a walk-through of their facility to ensure door locks and smoke detectors are operational; the cost of their repair pales in comparison to the cost of something going wrong.
I am a strong proponent of having at least one county commissioner shadow our inspections. The briefing we conduct when we finalize our inspections is good. However, seeing is believing, especially when the facility is found to be in non-compliance.
Q: What are the keys to retaining jail staff?
A: Pay, benefits, and working conditions