Watchdog: Vague standards, weak enforcement endanger Texas jail inmates
The findings were part of a 73-page report from the Sunset Advisory Commission, which took issue with many of the jail commission's operations
By St. John Barned-Smith
HOUSTON, Texas — Texas jails are perilous places: the site of more than 100 inmate deaths and 10,000 assaults in 2019. That same year, inmates tried to end their lives more than 1,000 times. And at least 750 times, guards injured inmates.
Most of those incidents — and everything else that happens in county jails — are hidden from public view. A lone state agency, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, is responsible for monitoring the state's 239 county jails and ensuring they meet minimum safety standards designed to protect inmates and staff.
But a state government watchdog found that the agency is failing to provide needed oversight of local jails and that it "has not proactively updated standards to keep pace with dynamic jail environments."
The findings were part of a critical 73-page report from the Sunset Advisory Commission, which took issue with many of the core functions of the jail commission's operations. The sunset commission, which reviews the performance of state agencies every 12 years, found numerous other problems with the jail commission's performance and effectiveness.
The sunset commission found that many of the jail commission's key standards were so vague as to be meaningless. One, for example, requires jails to develop procedures for communicating information about inmates who are potentially suicidal but does not include any details about what information jailers should communicate. The report also found that the commission's enforcement process doesn't mitigate risk in county jails and that it fails to make wayward jails fix their operations.
Sunset staff found that over two fiscal years, after the agency warned jails they were not compliant with required standards, about a fifth of jails that received such warnings remained afoul of state rules for six months or longer.
At a hearing in early December, jail commission staff faced few questions from legislators, though John Cyrier, chair of the sunset commission, said they have "a lot of work to do" to prepare for the upcoming legislative session.
When he spoke before the sunset commission — comprising five representatives, five senators and two public members — Brandon Wood, executive director of the jail commission, agreed with the majority of the sunset staff's findings but said he did not favor one suggestion to use risk assessments to determine inspection schedules, which could lead to less frequent inspections of some institutions. Currently, jail inspectors visit each facility at least once a year.
Wood said because jails are "such unique environments," in-person visits are important to make sure jail operators are running operations that keep inmates and jailers safe.
"It causes a level of discomfort that is hard to put into words that we wouldn't be putting eyes on each jail at least once a year," he said.
In a written response to the sunset staff's findings, Wood agreed to adopt many of the recommendations, including conducting more internal analyses, creating a schedule to review standards, proposing a model incorporating escalating sanctions against noncompliant jails and developing a risk assessment process to determine which jails will be subject to a full re-inspection after being found noncompliant.
While critics have argued the jail commission does not punish noncompliant jails aggressively enough, Wood defended his agency's light-touch approach by saying the commission has "attempted to remain respectful of local government" while providing the flexibility they need in order to meet minimum jail standards.
He also asked for guidance from legislators in cases in handling inmate deaths at hospitals, cases that police agencies have argued didn't count as "deaths in custody."
The sunset report also found inconsistent treatment across jails and "underdeveloped processes" for conducting inspections, investigating complaints and cracking down on violations. It recommended requiring the agency to update how it performs its duties, including inspections and data collection.
The findings come amid a nationwide debate about how police and sheriffs treat civilians, particularly while they are in custody. The jail commission received little notice for decades — until the 2015 case of Sandra Bland, who died in the Waller County Jail three days after a contentious traffic stop with a now-retired state trooper.
The jail commission has an annual budget of about $1.4 million and 22 full-time employees. Sunset staff noted that just three inspectors were responsible for visiting the state's 239 jails, giving them a far higher caseload than inspectors from other agencies with similar responsibilities, such as the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which in 2019 employed 12 staff to conduct 92 comprehensive inspections.
In Texas, the jail commission does not have the authority to monitor many detention facilities, including municipal jails, the short-term lockups where a police department may hold people for a few hours before transporting them to a county or state jail, where people convicted of low-level crimes are incarcerated for sentences between 180 days and two years. The jail commission also does not oversee prisons or juvenile detention facilities.
The jails overseen by the commission have a collective capacity of about 95,000 beds. As of Sept. 1, jails were at about 70 percent capacity, according to the sunset commission's report.
Sunset staff also found the jail commission lacks clear procedures when handling inmate complaints and doesn't provide adequate information about the complaints process, leading to "inefficiency and unfairness." The sunset commission faulted the jail commission for lacking reliable complaints data — making it impossible to analyze how to address jail noncompliance.
The sunset staff report is one of two related to criminal justice issues. Along with the review of the jail commission, the advisory commission also reviewed the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which it said is unable to provide any meaningful oversight of the state's peace officers.
Texas Sen. John Whitmire, D- Houston, said the report underscored the need to provide more resources and additional guidance to the agency.
"Four people reviewing 240 jails (per year) is cursory at best," he said. "Not to mention getting bogged down with the bad actors."
Scott Henson, executive director of the justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said the jail commission's issues are less severe than TCOLE's but nevertheless face significant challenges.
"They don't have the sort of staff to do a deeper dive when an agency has problems — they do inspection, and that's kind of all they have resources for — but they can't necessarily go further," he said. "Their failures aren't quite as overwhelming. They're at least able to do the once-a-year inspections, but then that's it. ... They can identify problems but don't have (adequate) staff to help oversee solutions."
Henson and other criminal justice experts and advocates said the report highlighted one of the agency's biggest shortcomings: vague standards.
"Vague standards have real-life consequences," said Texas Jail Project co-founder Diana Claitor, pointing to medical standards that permitted jails to use virtually any medical professional, including those with extremely limited training or expertise, as a facility's chief medical official.
Claitor pointed to cases in which pregnant women were shackled after giving birth, or other instances when jailers did not recognize women were in labor, leading to dangerous births.
The report also provided an opportunity for the jail commission to provide more detailed guidance to jails based on individual size, said Michele Deitch, an attorney and criminal justice consultant who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs.
"These standards set a bare minimum," Deitch said. "But that doesn't mean facilities that present different needs or risks shouldn't abide more tailored sets of standards."
"This is an agency that does in fact have some teeth," Deitch said. "There's a great deal of potential that has gone unfulfilled, and with these recommendations, they could be so much more effective for the people in custody in these facilities as well as protecting county officials from liability."
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