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: The TCJS conducted its first-ever strategy session earlier this year. What prompted this session, and what are some of the key strategies your team has developed?
A: As part of an ongoing effort to ensure that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards meets its statutory responsibilities, fulfills its mission, and efficiently serves the citizens of Texas, two “Strategic Planning Sessions” were held. The first planning session, held in February, consisted entirely of public comment from key stakeholders about TCJS’ mission, implementation of effective jail standards, and management consultation. Some of the comments about TCJS issues included smoke removal systems, handling of mentally ill inmates, jail-staffing analysis, additional technical assistance to jails, announced vs. unannounced inspections, increased TCJS staffing and salary, and eliminating standards for holding cells.
From the public comments, TCJS staff formulated action initiatives and presented the initiatives, as well as actions already implemented, to the Commission in an April hearing.
Key recommendations included adding an additional inspector position to reduce the number of jails assigned to each current inspector. Justification for the additional inspector was an increase of more than 3,000 jail beds in the past five years. By reducing the number of jails assigned to each inspector, the added inspector will allow inspectors to spend more time providing on-site technical assistance to their assigned jails.
TCJS staff also recommended an additional staff position to handle jail management issues to curtail the rising number of complaints handled by the TCJS. Actions already initiated by the staff included the creation of an Inmate Complaint Database. The database will allow staff to detect trends.
During the strategy session, the results of a customer service survey were presented to the Commission. The results as stated in the survey document are as follows: By May 1, 2008, 33 sheriffs (66 percent) and 29 judges (58 percent) had returned surveys to TCJS. Some incidents of survey error occurred, either as skipped questions or more than one selection chosen, and have been omitted in the results tables. In general, sheriffs responded more favorably to TCJS’ customer service than judges, with a higher response rate, more additional comments, and fewer negative survey responses. However, the responses received from both groups were overwhelmingly positive and reflect favorably on the TCJS’ customer service record (TCJS survey, 2008, www.tcjs.state.tx.us).
Q: What is the No. 1 challenge facing county jails today?
A: One of the most significant challenges facing county jails is the handling of mentally ill offenders. A considerable number of mentally ill inmates are repeatedly incarcerated, and jails have become a de-facto mental health facility for many of these individuals. Several counties, including Smith and Harris, are creating specialized mental health courts to divert non-violent offenders from incarceration. In an effort to assist counties, the 80th Legislature amended the CCP 17.032 to provide for the release of certain non-violent mentally ill defendants on personal bond.
Q: What measures should counties take to prevent jail overcrowding?
A. Counties may wish to analyze the efficiency of their court systems and investigate the feasibility of diversionary courts and programs.
Q: What is the current blue warrant status?
A: Some jail administrators have identified blue warrant offenders as a second significant issue behind mentally ill offenders. To explain the process, parole officials must adjudicate parole violators with no other pending charges within 45 days. However, problems arise when parole violators have additional charges pending. Parole officials will generally not conduct a hearing until the violator’s new charges are adjudicated. As a result, parole violators are remanded without bail for many months.
In an effort to assist arresting jurisdictions, the 80th Legislature amended CCP Art. 15.18-15.21 to require individuals who are arrested on out-of-county warrants and blue warrants to be held by the county holding the out-of-county warrant instead of the arresting county.
To provide statistics, as reported to TCJS, the number of parole violators held in county facilities from 2005-2007 is as follows:
December 31, 2005: 2,976
December 31, 2006: 2,516
December 31, 2007: 2,551
Q: What can counties do to ensure safe and secure county jails?
A: Counties can ensure safe and secure jails by proper training and consistent in-service of minimum jail standards and by adopting and implementing best practices of officer safety and facility security.
Q: What are the keys to retaining jail staff?
A: In addition to competitive salaries and opportunities for advancement, other key factors for staff retention include, but are not limited to, consistent staff training, secure work environment, and proper debriefing after critical incidences.
Q: Have there been any recent changes to the minimum standards?
A: Since November 2007, the following changes have been made to minimum jail standards as noted in Commission Minutes:
273.5(c) Health Services. A change to standards was adopted that modifies the mental history check jails are required to perform on each inmate upon intake. The change modified the existing standard by not requiring facilities housing out-of-state or federal inmates to perform the check, changed the word “offender” to “inmate,” and clarified the documentation requirement that the check has been performed.
271.1(a) (8) Classification and Separation of Inmates. A change to standards was adopted to address prisoners in transit. Prisoners that are being transported are at times housed at a facility overnight before completion of a trip. Standards did not adequately address how prisoners in transit were to be processed and housed temporarily at a facility. According to 271.1(a) (8) the following shall apply to prisoners in transit:
(a) An inmate is a prisoner in transit if the agency charged with the custody of the inmate is transporting the inmate from one jail or detention facility to another jail or detention facility.
(b) When housed together and separately from all other inmates, prisoners in transit transported by another agency may be temporarily housed in a facility if the transporting agency provides a written statement that the prisoners can be safely housed together.
(c) When housed they shall be confined in maximum construction level housing.
(d) Females shall be separated by sight and sound from males.
(e) Observation shall be performed at least every 30 minutes.
(f) They shall not be held in a facility for more than 48 consecutive hours.
(g) The facility providing temporary housing is not required to check prisoners in transit against the Department of State Health Services’ Care System to determine if the prisoner has previously received state mental health care.
(h) A transporting agency may include a private correctional company engaged in the transportation of prisoners.
277.2 Inmate Laundry. A change to standards was adopted that addressed inmate laundry. Standards require that inmates shall receive a change of clothing at least once a week. The intent of the standards is that inmates shall be issued immediate exchanges of clothing, but the current wording of 277.2 is imprecise.