Harris County sheriff asks for help to fix jail amid deaths, hopes to improve safety and staffing

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Wednesday, March 15, 2023
Harris County sheriff asks for help to fix troubled jail
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez stood before commissioners asking for help to fix the troubled jail, which doesn't meet standards, according to the state.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Harris County has a razor-thin budget, but it also has a troubled jail, which does not meet standards, according to the state.

It's a complex problem with no easy solutions. The jail is undoubtedly overcrowded and understaffed.

SEE ALSO: Harris Co. Jail's reported continued non-compliance comes after 4 inmates died in January alone

And on Tuesday, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez appealed to commissioners, looking for help. The jail, which he runs, has seen a spike in inmate deaths, and he says there are 150 open positions he cannot fill.

"Frankly, this commissioners' court could grant me 1,000 more positions," Gonzalez said. "But I could not fill them because there just aren't enough persons willing to do this work for the pay we offer."

Gonzalez made a pair of proposals to improve the retention of existing staff and perhaps recruit new employees who will stay. One was adding the rank of Captain to encourage longevity, and another was including retention bonuses.

WATCH: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez sits down with 13 investigates to answer concerns of Harris Co. jail conditions

A record 27 people died in the custody of the Harris County Jail last year, and in January, four more died at the jail. There were no deaths at the jail in February.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said there is an urgency to improve conditions at the jail, and she is willing to spend money to make that happen.

"It's around $5 million," Hidalgo said. "It's significant, especially given the fact that we're already in the red. We're already in a deficit. And the projections show continued deficits. I'll concede it's not the most financially responsible decision, but it's a necessary one."

Precinct 4 County Commissioner Lesley Briones, a former judge, wants to take a holistic approach to ease pressure on the jails by improving the system.

"Public safety is my number one priority," she said. "With population growth that we've experienced and will continue to experience, plus the backlog that was exacerbated by Harvey and COVID, we need to get through the backlog, and we need to make sure that judges have the time they need to administer quality justice."

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

Her proposal would help ease the backlog of cases and potentially ease overcrowding. That element of her broad, holistic proposal would cost $30 million to start. That was something Hidalgo would unequivocally support with a lot of help from the state, but Briones' suite of proposals did get the court's approval late Tuesday. It is just one of many plans to fix a broken jail...one the Sheriff says he needs help repairing sooner than later.

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