County sheriffs claim Texas Department of Criminal Justice is worsening jail overcrowding

Houston Public Media’s Lucio Vasquez shares what he and KERA’s Miranda Suarez have learned about this statewide issue.

By Rhonda Fanning & Patrick M. DavisApril 29, 2024 3:57 pm, ,

Houston’s Harris County is the most densely populated in the state, and like many other large Texas counties, it’s been dealing with a long standing issue that seems to be getting worse– overcrowded jails.

Staffing has been cited as a problem, but local officials are also pointing fingers at the state, saying there have been extended delays in the transfers of people convicted of crimes to state custody. Sheriffs say they’re just not getting processed fast enough.

In this month’s installment of The Drill Down, our monthly feature highlighting investigative and enterprise journalism from The Texas Newsroom and our public radio partners across the state, Houston Public Media’s Lucio Vasquez joined the show. He recently co-published an in-depth look at this issue with Miranda Suarez, a reporter at KERA in North Texas. 

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: This is an interesting story. How severe is the overcrowding that you’re seeing in Harris County? And what is the state’s responsibility here?

Lucio Vasquez: Harris County is home to the state’s largest jail, and it is severely understaffed. It has been for a few years now, and the trend has been seen throughout the state as well.

I mean, we’ve got Tarrant County Jail, we have Bexar County Jail also seeing severe understaffing. And they’re also seeing more motion throughout the court system, as well, as they deal with their court backlogs. And so we’re seeing a lot more people being convicted. However, the slowdown in the state transfer system is becoming a bit of an issue, according to jail officials across the state. 

So it comes down to this transfer system. I know you’ve been collaborating with journalists from around the state. How is this issue playing out elsewhere? 

So I’d say it’s pretty similar across the state, at least in these larger jails. A person will be in county jail, they’ll be convicted of a crime, and they’ll wait to be transferred to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facility, whether it be a prison or a state jail.

However, throughout the last months, that system has been slowing down. So we’re seeing the amount of people who are “paper-ready” as they call them – the people who are ready to be transferred – that number is increasing. But the number of people who are actually being transferred per week is staying pretty consistent.

» The Drill Down: Investigative and enterprise stories from across Texas

How does the state determine who gets transferred when? 

That’s a great question and the answer will differ depending on who you ask.

According to state law, they have 45 days after the paperwork is certified. Basically the county jail will send the TDCJ, what’s called a penitentiary packet. Once that is certified, then the countdown starts.

But according to jail officials, they would prefer if the countdown were to start right as the conviction is finalized. And so there’s a little bit of a discourse about how many people are staying for X amount of days. There seems to be a disconnect there. 

Well, what’s the net effect of all of this? How does overcrowding at these county jails affect staff and those who are incarcerated? 

Well, understaffing, mixed with overcrowding or “over-incarceration” as some jail reform advocates would put it, that combination tends to create a dangerous environment for both the prisoners inside the jail and the people working there, the guards and the medical staff.

I mean, here in Harris County specifically, we’ve had a growing number of deaths. I think in 2022, specifically, we had at least 28 people die while in custody. And that’s a record high.

In Tarrant County, I think over 60 people or so over the last few years have died as well. And it’s resulting in a lot of lawsuits being filed and a lot of public outcry from jail reform advocates. It’s led to tumultuous times, especially for people who have lost loved ones at the jail. 

Are these deaths directly attributable to this delay in transfer? 

You know, I want to stop short of saying that it’s directly connected. But I think it’s part of a larger whole. I view the criminal justice system as, like, a big octopus with a lot of tentacles. I think this is just one tentacle of the larger whole, if that makes sense.

I mean, we have a court backlog here in Harris County, and also in other counties across the state, that’s leading to an increase in the number of people who are in the jail itself, and an increase in the amount of time people are spending in the jail. If we have a backlog in court cases moving through the court system, then people are spending more time in the jail and making it overcrowded.

But connect the dots for me, in case I missed it. How does staying in a county jail increase the risk of death for someone who’s been convicted? 

So, basically, if these facilities are understaffed, they can only properly care for X amount of prisoners – at least according to state law.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has a minimum set of safety standards that they advocate for and enforce. So in the state of Texas, you must have one guard for every 48 prisoners. But if it’s understaffed, then they can only hold fewer prisoners.

But then if the court system is moving faster, then they don’t really have anywhere to go except just to keep more people in the jail with a fewer amount of staff. This then creates an environment that’s potentially dangerous for the people working there, and for the people who are being held there.

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Is there an issue when it comes to basic necessities? Are people not getting fed because of shortages?

Well, it’s hard to pin down.

In Harris County specifically, there are allegations of medical neglect. Basically, if you don’t have enough people to properly care for the prisoners, then things are going to slip through the cracks.

Here in Harris County, the jail has failed, I think, five separate safety inspections from the state since September of 2022. The main issue has been understaffing and subsequently overcrowding due to that understaffing. But again, that understaffing and then the population issue tends to be the catalyst for other issues, as well, within the facility. 

So there’s finger pointing on both sides. Have you talked to state officials about this overcrowding? What are they saying in response to the claims that these county sheriffs are making? 

Well, we spoke with Timothy Fitzpatrick. He’s the director of classification and records at TDCJ. He said people are picked up chronologically and that big counties don’t get priority despite the fact that they’re the state’s largest clients. 

As the situation continues to unfold, where are you keeping an eye on? 

Well, in addition to the people who are paper-ready or ready to be transferred to state facilities, county jails are also responsible for holding people who violate parole on technical violations. So if someone were to basically fail a drug test or something like that, they’re brought into the county jail and they’re also taking up space. And that can also lead to overcrowding issues in these facilities.

In Harris County, we have about a thousand people at any given time who are both ready to be transferred to state prisons and who are being held on technical parole violations. So that’s a large chunk of the population just right there. 

Is there any sign that there’s going to be any movement on this stalemate between state and county jailers? 

The state has an education process that they’re going through with local counties to get them basically up to speed with this 45-day stipulation. I think as of late last year, they revised the 45-day requirement so that if counties are holding people for longer than 45 days, they’re able to be reimbursed from the state.

But according to Fitzpatrick, that hasn’t happened yet because he says that people haven’t been held for longer than 45 days. 

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