Public attention on jails tends to focus on bigger urban facilities in places like Harris County.
These jails are in the headlines for things like assault or the death of an inmate. But the numbers of violent incidents measured across facilities don’t tell the whole story. Indeed, part of the reason bigger facilities have the most violent incidents is simply because they house the most people.
By measuring individual types of violence and injury based on the population of each county jail, a new investigation by the Houston Chronicle found some off-the-radar facilities where inmates face specific threats at the highest rates.
Eric Dexheimer, who worked on the investigation for the Chronicle, said the data in the article comes from requirements imposed in the Sandra Bland Act.
“I’ve reported a lot on traffic stop information that has come out of the Sandra Bland Act, the law that was passed in 2017, in the wake of Sandra Bland stop in Waller County and subsequent suicide in the Waller County jail,” he said. “I had noticed that the serious incident reports were mandated as part of that, yet had never seen anything written about them or any indication that they had been used in any proactive way to kind of analyze what was going inside jail. So I thought, there’s an unknown there. And so I wanted to look into it.”
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Dexheimer said experts emphasized this data should be used as an indication that there might be trouble within a particular jail.
“Just because a jail has a high number in a given year doesn’t necessarily mean that jail was dangerous. But if a jail has high numbers over the course of several years, then it bears looking into it,” he said. “What we found was that several jails that might be off the radar have some high numbers and have had them over a period of time. Bexar County Jail in San Antonio has a high number of suicides and has for the last few years. Hays County, south of Austin, has a high number of use-of-force incidents that result in injury. And meanwhile, Cameron and Nueces County jails down in South Texas, a very high incidence of inmate injuries, serious injuries, which is a type of injury defined in statute as disfiguring or permanent.”
It is hard to know why certain jails have certain issues, Dexheimer said, but certain factors were present in jails that had high numbers of suicide attempts.
“What we found in some instances is that there was a low number of employees working,” he said. “We found out in Cameron County that the number of guards working was half the number that is mandated by the state. I don’t know if there’s a cause and effect, but some of the experts we spoke to said that a high number of suicide attempts could indicate anything from inadequate supervision to poor mental health care.”
Dexheimer said he was surprised at some of the jails that had high numbers of incidents.
“Hays County was up until recently a relatively sleepy suburb, but it’s grown a tremendous amount in the last decade. San Marcos is one of the fastest growing cities in the state and in the country. And so they’ve had to build a new jail. It’s one of those facilities that you don’t think of necessarily as having problems. But we did find in a few instances that their numbers were pretty high,” he said. “This just is an opportunity for people who study jails and who go into them on a regular basis to see what those numbers might mean and whether they are cause for concern and further exploration and maybe some changes.”
There are a number of solutions that have been tried to improve conditions in county jails, Dexheimer said.
“There’s a whole range of solutions that have been tried, ranging from better mental health care and kind of recognition of mental health problems of folks who come in,” he said. “People who are in jail have typically not been convicted of any crime. And the research shows that it’s in the first 24 or 48 hours that they’re at the most risk, say, of self-harm.”
The Sandra Bland Act also required jails to do analysis and provide better care.
“We noted that having an adequate number of guards is a constant battle for jails,” Dexheimer said. “They’ve been struggling to hire enough people, and the turnover rates are extraordinarily high. We found several jails where the number of guards who left were the total staff left over a period of one month.”