Harris County commissioners voted unanimously to approve more than $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to transfer inmates eight hours away to Giles Dalby Correctional Facility in Post, Texas, outside of Lubbock, at the end of their July 19 meeting.
Discussions lasted for over an hour and a half regarding the agreement with Management and Training Corporation, the company that operates Giles Dalby. It is the third expenditure of its kind in 2022; commissioners approved $1.52 million on Jan. 25 and another $7.62 million on March 22 to cover the transfer of inmates to Louisiana jails.
County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez joined the meeting virtually and said conditions at the jail necessitated the funding, including a jail at full capacity, staff burnout, an uptick in COVID-19 cases and an impending slow down in the courts once people leave for vacation in November and December.
‘To those that may be concerned because we are outsourcing, we understand,” Gonzalez said. “We want to limit this as quickly as we can. But really, we’re not the source of it. We don’t control who comes into the system—we just manage the facilities and the operations.”
‘Stuck in this loop’
The county’s jail population dashboard showed that as of July 21, the total jail population had reached 10,001, with 594 inmates already transferred to other facilities. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office was the arresting agency for 20.86% of the population, compared to the Houston Police Department’s 55.9%.
Members of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based organization working to abolish for-profit prisons, spoke in opposition of the agreement, including Mo Cortez, a policy campaign organizer for the group.
“The trauma of family separation—it lasts a lifetime,” said Cortez, whose own father died in a Huntsville prison. “It puts an undue stress on people who are already struggling in life, struggling with finances and every other thing. When we can’t rescue these people, we jail them, so I’m asking you for care and not cages.”
County Judge Lina Hidalgo expressed frustration with continual funding requests from the Sheriff’s Office she believes lack a clear plan of action.
“We are stuck in this loop where it is a financially problematic situation, and I don’t yet see a path to success because I don’t see everybody else doing their piece,” Hidalgo said. “We are just sort of putting in the money and not seeing necessarily the results, and then having to commit even more [money]. Anything that the stakeholders do is not going to tackle this overnight, but we at least need the commitment to tackle it.”
Accordingly, commissioners also voted to direct the deputy county administrator for justice and safety to recommend initiatives that address jail standards and reduce the court case backlog. The recommendations will be presented to court Sept. 13.
‘No other choice’
Gonzalez said he would rather see money invested elsewhere, but at the moment felt his office had “no other choice.” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he would also rather spend money on roads and health initiatives than send people to other jurisdictions, but recalling his own experience as county sheriff, he said the alternative is an overcrowded jail with inhumane conditions.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey echoed that sentiment and urged other stakeholders to treat the issue with the same urgency as the Commissioners Court had. He attributed the case backlog to a combination of courts, including those run by the district attorney, public defender and others.
The jail was at 99.8% capacity as of July 19, according to Gonzalez. As of July 21, 81% of the jail population was still awaiting trial, with the average length of stay at 192 days, per the county’s dashboard.
Recognizing the financial difficulty of repeated spending, County Administrator David Berry said the county needed to redouble its efforts to avoid future issues when federal funding was no longer available.
“None of us wants to be in this situation of sending inmates out of town in the first place. But also spending tens of millions of dollars a year on this is not financially sustainable,” Berry said. “And while we can weather it for this year and use ARPA funds, that’s at the cost of not doing something else with those ARPA funds. And we can’t be in the same spot two or three years from now.”