Judge Hidalgo announces program expansion at Harris Co. Jail after 4 inmates have died this year

Pooja Lodhia Image
Friday, February 10, 2023
County leaders reveal plan to ease Harris Co. Jail overcrowding
Twenty-seven inmates died in custody at the Harris County Jail in 2022. That's a record high number. County leaders don't want to repeat that this year after reports of four inmate

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- On Thursday, county officials announced plans to reduce overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

This comes after a record of 27 inmates died in custody in 2022, and four have died so far in 2023.

The 13 Investigates team has been covering this issue for more than a year, with ABC13's Pooja Lodhia as the only Houston reporter there as families confronted state jail officials in Austin about it on Wednesday.

SEE ALSO: More coverage from 13 Investigates on inmate deaths

Twenty-seven inmates died in custody at the Harris County Jail in 2022. That's a record high number. County leaders don't want to repeat that this year, after reports of four inmate deaths already.

At a press conference, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced expanded treatment options for severely mentally ill inmates, referring to those who have been found incompetent to stand trial. It is slated to start in April.

In some cases, they wait inside the jail for years.

The idea here is to speed up trials and free up jail facilities, but it only impacts about 2% of the jail population.

"The entire system does have challenges. Are we tackling the challenges at each level we can? Absolutely. We are not done by any means," Hidalgo said. "The jail population has increased, and you would think that would explain why jail deaths have increased, but the truth of the matter is that jail deaths have increased disproportionately to the increase in the population."

Commissioners approved $645,000 to expand the capacity of the existing jail competency restoration program, which provides therapy, substance abuse education, peer support services, and more.

The program, Hidalgo said, is a crucial step to reducing the jail population and overcrowding issues that the city is facing.

This year, four inmates have already died.

ABC13 has spoken with some of these families who are begging for change.

Mothers, fathers, wives, and husbands packed the quarterly meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards on Wednesday in Austin, and we were there.

Nineteen people testified, many of whom were very emotional after losing a loved one in custody. They believe the current jail system is broken.

"If you want to see somebody bite -- nail, tooth -- mess with a mother's child. You continue to do things that are not right. I'm not standing for it," Deborah Smith, whose daughter died after a month in the county jail, said.

Smith said the judge's announcement needs to go further.

" I'm glad they're doing it for them, but it's not the end of it. It is much deeper than that. I still feel they need a clean slate," she said.

SEE RELATED STORY: Families of Harris County inmates in Austin to advocate for loved ones who died in jail