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Legislature Fails to Improve Oversight of County Jails

During the 80th Legislative Session, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) filed several unsuccessful bills that would have increased accountability over the state’s county jail systems. The measures included:

  • HB 2244 – would have standardized the correctional officer-prisoner ratio
  • HB 2699 – would have required county jails that failed 3 annual inspections to acquire a special monitor to oversee jail operations and security protocols

The Texas county jail system is regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). We have previously written about the need for improved oversight of private jails where companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) historically have poor hiring practices and weak track records regarding public safety.

HB 2244 established in statute a prisoner supervision rate of 1:48 (1 corrections officer for every forty-eight prisoners); this was to ensure that county jail detainees and employees work and live in a safe and humane environment. During the committee hearing it became apparent that Bexar County correctional officers, who overwhelming supported HB 2244, are very concerned about their safety.

HB 2699 authorized the executive director of TCJS to place any correctional facility that fails three consecutive annual inspections due to management-related deficiencies under a special monitor. This has been a huge issue in Texas, where some of the largest facilities -- including Dallas County and Harris County -- chronically fail state inspections.

Primary opposition to both measures came from Dallas County whose jail is currently under review by the US Department of Justice. The Texas Conference of Urban Counties mobilized strong opposition and worked successfully to defeat the measures.

Both bills were heavily debated on the floor, and Turner was a strong champion – not surprising since Harris County has received significant attention over the years due to chronic overcrowding.

Yet the bills failed to pass. It’s unfortunate, particularly when the legislation received such strong support from not only correctional officers but also TCJS. Hopefully, advocates lead by the Bexar County Deputy Sheriff’s Association will continue to work during the interim. Momentum can be built since TCJS will be under sunset review during the 81st Session.