AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) -- Despite improvements to how it books inmates at the Harris County Jail, the state on Thursday warned the county it could ask them to outsource more inmates if the jail isn't able to improve staffing and other concerns.
"We need Harris County back in compliance, and if it means additional inmates housed out (at other facilities) in order to do so, that is something that we have no issue with recommending," Texas Commission on Jail Standards Executive Director Brandon Wood told the Harris County jail leaders on Thursday.
Phillip Bosquez, assistant chief of Detentions Command at the Harris County Sheriff's Office, presented updates to the commission during its quarterly meeting.
He said the jail is currently housing 1,207 inmates at three different facilities. It first started housing inmates at facilities in Louisiana and West Texas due to a shortage of beds at the jail.
There's also a shortage of staff, with 178 openings, Bosquez said.
The state said it is worried the staffing shortages are impacting the jail's ability to comply with Texas standards when it comes to providing inmates medical care, and housing individuals within 48 hours.
The jail has been cited multiple times over the last year for taking more than 48 hours to house inmates. Although the time it took to house inmates at the Harris County Jail took 48 hours or more for 11% of inmates in July, Bosquez told commissioners the jail has improved its booking times.
Over the last year, the jail has also been cited for not providing insulin and blood pressure medication to an inmate despite physician orders. That inmate died of diabetic ketoacidosis last year.
Bosquez said its healthcare provider "implemented an electronic medication order packaging system" and has an audit for keeping on-person medications.
He said their findings show 95% of the medication is dispensed within 48 hours. Those who did not receive medication in that timeframe were either in court or considered a no-show for appointments. He said there is now an auditing system in place to determine why someone was a no-show so they can locate the inmate and follow up on their care.
Another non-compliance notice the jail addressed Thursday was related to not conducting face-to-face observation of jailers every 60 minutes. In March, an inmate in the booking area died by suicide in the bathroom.
Bosquez said the jail was "stretching the standards" for areas like the booking room facility.
When asked by the commission to explain what he meant by that, Bosquez said, "You don't find standards strictly to cover open booking, in my opinion, so being written up for somebody going into a bathroom like it was a holding cell, it's different. If you look at our area where this happened, it looks like a big lobby, or waiting room (with) chairs. The inmates aren't behind closed doors in these areas, and we just have bathrooms along the wall."
He said there needs to be better regulations for open area booking.
"They're not in a cell that we're not going by and seeing. It's a newer concept. We have a lot of jails with open booking, and honestly, I think we need some standards," he said. "We need some regulations for those versus things that are for a detention setting."
Still, Bosquez said the jail has implemented an electronic system that allows them to monitor the lobby area where inmates wait to get booked with the same oversight as if they were in a cell.
But, he said, the jail is still grappling with high turnover and 178 open positions.
"Officers, when they do come in, commissioner, they're not staying in a long time," he said. "We're seeing jailers leave just shy of 36 months, so we're losing that institutional knowledge."
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