Harris County Jail inspection report shows troubling staffing shortage impacting inmates and staff

Brooke Taylor Image
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Call for urgent change after sex assault at Harris County Jail
"We need manpower. We need womanpower. We need staffing right now in an urgent manner," said Texas Senator John Whitmire.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- An inspection by the Texas Workforce Commission on jail standards reveals the Harris County Jail is under-staffed, which inspectors believe contributes to the more than 1,000 staff members that have been assaulted by inmates in 2021.

In 2017, there were 46 reports of inmates assaulting staff members, according to the Harris County Deputies' Organization. In 2021, there have already been 1,265 reports.

The most recent incident is a female sergeant who was attacked and assaulted inside her office at the jail. Jeremiah Williams has been charged with two counts of sexual assault. Court records show Williams has already served time for other sexual assault charges.

SEE MORE: Harris County sergeant brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by inmate, sheriff's office says

A recent inspection report from Nov. 15-17 depicts a number of issues with a staff shortage.

"Minimal staffing has a direct impact on the ability to provide a safe and secure environment for inmates and jail staff in areas such as enforcing inmate rules, ensuring inmates' clean housing areas provide for sufficient staff to support housing officers, and has possibly contributed to an increase in inmate-on-inmate assaults and inmate-on-staff assaults," the report reads.

"We need manpower. We need womanpower. We need staffing right now in an urgent manner," said Texas Senator John Whitmire.

"We need manpower. We need womanpower. We need staffing right now in an urgent manner," said Texas Senator John Whitmire.

Whitmire told ABC13 the inspectors who conducted the report feared for their own safety.

"They were confronted and felt unsafe as they were doing their work of inspecting the jail," said Whitmire.

According to the report, all inmates should be accounted for by face-to-face checks, no less than once every hour. Inmates who are assaultive, potentially suicidal, or have any other concerning behaviors should be checked every 30 minutes.

But, inspectors report this isn't happening. Instead, some face-to-face observations happen between 90 to 144 minutes between rounds. The report said in some instances, officers say they are just too short-staffed.

The Harris County Jail is supposed to have one officer to every 48 inmates. According to the inspection, the way they are meeting this ratio is troubling. The jail is using supervisors and essential workers to address housing unit assignments, taking them away from their jobs to meet the ratio.

"Right now, we don't have control of our inmates," David Cuevas, the president of the Harris County Deputies' Organization, said. "Right now, inmates are running the jail."

Judge Lina Hidalgo's office sent ABC13 the following statement:

"This latest alleged assault at the county jail is beyond horrific. No public servant, or inmate for that matter, should ever be in a position where their safety is in question simply because they are in a jail. The status quo is not acceptable, and we must do everything we can to make sure deeply troubling incidents like this one stop happening. I have and continue to commit to doing everything possible to ensure the sheriff's office gets the resources it needs to improve jail conditions. Already, we've granted requests from the sheriff's office to address staffing and security, from increasing hazard pay for officers and funding for the facility, to increasing recruitment for detention officers. All involved in the system also have to address the unacceptable backlog in our criminal court system. On average, inmates are spending 202 days in the county jail awaiting trial and this also plays an unfortunate role in the systemic issues the jail is facing by crowding the jail beyond its means. That is why we've invested heavily to reduce the backlog and will continue to do so."

A spokesperson for the county judge also said funding for the jail increased from $186 million in 2017 to $245 million in 2022.

Whitmire said results from the November inspection, calling the jail in non-compliance, will require the county to increase staff or risk lowering the jail population.

He also said a state take-over of the Harris County Jail could be an option.

"Consider all options, including state intervention, bringing constables, DPS," said Whitmire.