As the 81st Regular Session swings into gear, legislators will consider statutory changes to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) recommended by the Texas Sunset Advisory Committee. Bob submitted Grassroots Leadership's recommendations to Sunset last August, and the Commission adopted the recommendation that TCJS should receive better funding and more staff. Recommendations for TCJS, revealed in the Sunset Commission's January report, seek to improve operations at TCJS and make the agency run more effectively.
These are most of the Sunset Commission's recommendations for TCJS:
- Increase funding for TCJS, specifically for technical assistance, inspection staff, and training programs for guards, including training on mental health and physical health issues.
- Require TCJS to develop a list of risk factors affecting jails, such as a jail’s compliance history, population figures, complaints, escapes, recent turnover among sheriff s and jail staff, and to use those factors to determine the overall risk level of each jail under its jurisdiction.
- Require TCJS to use identified risk factors to guide the allocation of agency resources, so that the agency's 248 jails aren't necessarily divided among four inspectors. Instead, inspector assignments, travel schedules, and use of technical assistance and training would be set according to a TCJS risk assessment plan that includes each facility's risk level.
- Require the agency to increase its use of unannounced inspections, and to target unannounced inspections towards facilities with elevated risk factors.
- Require the agency to disseminate best practices
- Require the agency to better use technology, like email list-serves, electronic newsletters, and its existing website to disseminate valuable information, such as updates in case law, best practices, and notes from Commission meetings that would be valuable
- Require the Commission to develop clear, regularly updated internal policies and procedures, so staff understand their unique job responsibilities
- Require the Commission to develop complaint procedures, track and analyze complaints, and provide better information about how to file a complaint.
- Require the Commission to provide the public with easily accessible information on the compliance status of jails, through newsletters, the agency's website, or press releases
TCJS oversees all of the county and municipal jails in the state with just four inspectors, and the agency is miraculously able to inspect each of the 248 jail facilities every fourteen months. If you don't read the report (you should; it's a quick read), take some time to absorb these other impressive numbers relayed be the Sunset Staff:
"The Commission inspects each jail on an annual basis to determine compliance with standards. An inspection lasts between one day and a week or more, depending on the size of the facility. In fiscal year 2008, the agency completed 350 inspections, including 250 annual inspections, 85 repeat inspections, and 15 special inspections. Thirty-six percent, or 91, of the annual inspections were unannounced." pg. 38
"In fiscal year 2008, the Commission received 1,129 complaints from inmates, family members, and others regarding jail conditions. Th e agency employs a full-time complaint investigator who receives complaints in writing, over the internet, by email, or by telephone, and conducts investigations as necessary." pg. 40
Of the 248 facilities TCJS currently oversees, 19 are private. Only one of the private facilities, Community Educational Centers' Limestone County Detention Center, was listed as noncompliant as of August 31, 2008.
We hope the legislature will consider allowing the agency to oversee other county-owned jails, like GEO Group's Reeves County Detention Center
. As Nicole and Bob wrote, prisoners rioted and set fires to Reeves in late December of last year
and early this February
to protest poor medical care and a mysterious inmate death at the facility.
Expanding TCJS to additional county-owned facilities like Reeves would force the affected prisons to meet basic minimum standards set for other county-owned jails in Texas, positively impacting public safety
by decreasing riots and hopefully eliminating hostage situations, and better protecting guards
by forcing observation of a 48-1 inmate-staff ratio. It would als insulate Reeves County from some of the liability for problems at the facility.