‘You’re just sitting there holding him.’ Slow release from jail common in Texas

A lawsuit filed by former inmates against Smith County, east of Dallas, has prompted others to speak out.

By Bret Jaspers, KERA NewsAugust 10, 2023 9:57 am, ,

From KERA News:

As the East Texas hay season stretched into July, Lisa Stone and her husband needed the help of their son Jason on the family farm. Jason, however, was finishing a drug-related sentence in the Smith County Jail in Tyler, southeast of Dallas.

“I had just fallen and hurt my knee and I could just barely walk. And I was thinking, ‘well, Jason’ll be home and he can help me,’” Lisa recalled. “And then he didn’t get to come home. And that upset me pretty bad.”

Both he and Lisa had been trying to nail down his release date. According to their calculations, it should have been July 1, but that day came and went.

Lisa called Texas state agencies – as well as Smith County offices – to get a firm date of release and to move Jason’s paperwork along. She found the lack of information frustrating.

The Stone’s struggles in Smith County echo that of three other inmates who recently filed a lawsuit against the county – as well as similar complaints across Texas. The plaintiffs in the suit claim they were held for 8, 27, and 33 days past the conclusion of their sentences.

“You’re not offering to try to find out any of this information,” she said of the county staff. “You’re just sitting there holding him, and if somebody doesn’t say anything, who knows how long he would stay in there.”

Lisa and Jason both told KERA they were continually put off or referred elsewhere in their search for information, a search that went on for weeks.

“I just kind of sat there, thinking in my mind ‘How can this even be right?’ and ‘Why is nobody even trying to do anything?’” Jason said.

Suddenly, jail staff told him to pack his stuff to go home. It was July 7.

“What happened, we don’t know,” Lisa said.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Jason Stone with his mother, Lisa Stone, hang out on a couch Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, at their home in Troup. Stone was in the Smith County jail a week longer than the end of his sentence and was finally released July 7.


The Texas Fair Defense Project, the nonprofit bringing the lawsuit, said overdetention is a problem beyond Smith County.

“We’ve heard from people in counties that range from very, very small to very, very large about this happening to them or to people that they know,” said Nathan Fennell, a staff attorney. “I won’t say we’ve heard about this in every county, but we’ve heard about it in a lot of places.”

One of the largest jails in the state, Dallas County, recently held Jennifer Goolsby about 10 days after the conclusion of her sentence. It came as Dallas County staff struggled with a new case management system. At the same time, some county workers critical to processing cases lost access to a separate sheriff’s department information system.

Goolsby’s case is unrelated to the Smith County lawsuit. Dallas County officials deny the rising jail population there is due to the new case management platform.

“Jails are notoriously opaque spaces,” Fennell said, adding it’s “impossible” for inmates, family, advocates, and even attorneys to know what is causing the holdup.

The Smith County Sheriff’s Office declined an interview and said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

The Smith County Sheriff’s Office Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, in Tyler.

Getting released

The process for releasing an inmate begins with the convicting court, which prepares a packet of documents it sends to a county jail.

The jail then delivers the packet to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice via email, mail, or hand delivery. Next, TDCJ certifies and reviews it for accuracy and authorizes the inmate’s release.

The department’s protocol is to return the paperwork within three days of receipt for people sentenced to time served, but “only when the convicting county [clearly] communicates this to the TDCJ,” according to an email from a department spokesperson.

The release can happen even faster, the spokesperson said, if the county makes it clear the person is due for release.

TDCJ did not answer emailed question from KERA asking if it had concerns about counties over-detaining inmates.

Overcrowding and oversight

Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said in a presentation to county officials earlier this year that the county’s incarceration rate in May 2022 was about twice that of the state. He also detailed the county’s problems retaining staff and paying overtime. And he said he was concerned about the prospect of renting space for Smith County inmates in jails in other counties.

“Anytime before this pandemic and everything, you could go to just about any sheriff and they would hold your inmates,” Smith told commissioners. “They have no room anymore. There’s no room. There’s nowhere to send inmates.”

The total county jail population in Texas rose 9% between January 2022 and January 2023, Texas Public Radio reported. And many counties, including Smith and Dallas, have been forced to hold inmates waiting for a bed in a state mental hospital where their mental competency can be restored. Only then can the person’s criminal case proceed.

The problem of jails keeping inmates past the conclusion of their sentences, however, complicates the narrative around overcrowding. Families are left asking why, if space is an issue, do officials tolerate slow processing?

A county jail can be deemed “noncompliant” with state standards if it releases an inmate early without the proper authorization, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the agency that inspects county jails to ensure proper sanitation and operating conditions.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Jason Stone on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, at home in Troup. Stone wonders if he would still be in the Smith County jail if his mother hadn't made calls to county and state offices.

But counties face no repercussions for releasing an inmate late.

“Whenever we do inspections … we are not sitting there calculating good time credit or sentence time that they’ve actually done,” said Brandon Wood, the commission’s executive director.

Wood said the transfer of people to a state prison or substance abuse treatment program is not within its purview. When people complain about that, the commission refers them back to their attorney or the judge.

Wood said he’s aware of the lawsuit against Smith County. Advocates would like regulators to do more.

“It’s hypocrisy to have very strong oversight when people are being released before their time, for whatever reason, but there is nothing in place to ensure the people are released in a timely manner or to hold the jails accountable when [people are] being kept way beyond their time,” said Krish Gundu, co-founder of the Texas Jail Project.

Proposals for changing the rules for jail oversight can come from agency staff or an advisory committee, but any formal adoption of a rule would have to be approved by the commissioners themselves, a body appointed to six-year terms by the Texas governor.

The Texas Legislature could also pass a law saying late releases can affect a jail’s compliance.

There are over 200 county jails in Texas. Wood said the efficient ones have very clear policies and procedures, enough properly trained staff, and accountability up and down the chain of command.

“It’s also extremely important that you have a self-audit tool in place and that you are going through periodically checking your own work,” he added.

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