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Jail populations rise across Texas, intensifying prisoners' trauma

my_southborough via Creative Commons

Jacilet Griffin-Lee’s family was never the same after her son was arrested and sent to the Harris County jail. At a February hearing, she had three minutes to describe to a commission of state regulators the impact of Texas’ largest jail on her family.

“Nightly, my ears are ringing with my son's last conversation. ‘Momma, get me out of here. I'mma die in here,’ ” she said.

Her son Evan Lee was murdered not long after. She is one of the dozens of families impacted by violence inside the Harris County Jail, statistically the most violent in the state, which saw a 20 year high in deaths.

When Griffin-Lee finished, another person spoke about another tragedy at another jail.

“These are human beings who are presumed innocent. But they're too poor to post bond,” said one woman speaking about the Hays County Jail.

And then another.

“I'm embarrassed to sit in this room and hear the atrocities that happen,” said David Lee Sincere, Reverend of Fort Bend Transformation Church.

An analysis of state data shows that Harris County Jail facilities lead state in assaults, often twice the per-capita number of other large jails.

These quarterly meetings usually have one or two community members sharing experiences. But on this day, it was nearly 20 — families, friends, former incarcerated — all frustrated and heartbroken people. It was the most speakers the commission ever had, and it took up nearly 90 minutes, or half the meeting.

Across the state, the number of jail deaths, assaults, the lack of deliberate medical care and other serious incidents are all up, rising along with jail population counts.

The state now holds more than 70,000 people across its 242 jails. The growth is increasingly pushing the institutions to their limits.

In December, nearly two out of three people in a Texas county jail were legally innocent — not convicted. But they are subjected to rises in suicide, murder, and assaults, according to state data.

“Balls are being dropped,” said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Texas jail populations saw a rise of more than 9% from January 2022 to January 2023. As more jails fill up, more balls are likely to be dropped.

“If you become overcrowded, it's like anything else," Wood explained. "And you start putting more people into a space that it was originally designed for, that tension levels rise.”

Those numbers make it hard for jailers to manage people. Many at the commission meeting spoke about the lack of adequate medical care.

“Giving birth in Harris County [Jail] was the worst thing I have ever lived through,” said Amy Growcock.

She was arrested for being late providing a urine sample for her probation and sat in the jail for days — three of which she was in active labor — but she said Harris County Jail staff didn’t believe her.

Ryan E. Poppe
Brandon Wood is executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

“My water broke, and I violently had staff and guards tear off my pants and ask me why I urinated on myself,” she recalled. “I was left alone, and I begged them to call 911 for two hours.”

Rather than putting the woman in available alternative housing designed for expectant mothers, Growcock gave birth in a jail clinic, and her child paid the price nearly dying, suffering multiple infections and spending two weeks in intensive care.

The growth in jail numbers has been attributed by reform advocates to SB6 — the law restricting who gets out without paying cash bail. Gov. Greg Abbott has made passing more restrictions on who can get out of jails on bail an emergency item for the legislative session — potentially exacerbating what some say is a crisis in Texas jails.

Wood attributes the large jail numbers to the courts, who are still trying to catch up to pandemic shutdowns.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office agreed. “Even though the number of people booked into the jail in recent years has declined, our court system is simply not moving fast enough to adjudicate cases in a timely manner,” said Angelique Myers, a media manager for the sheriff’s office.

One area of concern adding to the stresses of the jail is the lack of adequate mental health providers. That has kept inmates who need more attention inside jails, a scenario that was "absolutely’" inappropriate, according to state regulators.

It's just a very, very dire situation,” Wood explained. “We have over 2,500 individuals waiting to get into a state hospital bed just to have their competency restored. And that wait list has only continued to grow, and it is now over a one year wait to get into a state hospital. In the meantime, these individuals are remaining in our county jails,” he said.

Despite this, Texas’ jails are awash. Estimates are that more than a third of all prisoners are suffering from mental illness. In Harris County, the figure is 79%. In Texas, jails are the leading provider of mental health care. But Krish Gundu said they aren’t providing care — they are warehousing.

“A jail is not the proper setting for any sort of mental health care,” she said.

Gundu runs the Texas Jail Project, which advocates for jail reform. She was at the commission’s meeting. Her message to the body — which is made up of county judges, sheriffs and community members — was to put more resources on the front end … not into jails and law enforcement.

“If we keep investing in punitive solutions, this is the outcome they're going to keep getting. ... [W]e've criminalized homelessness; we've criminalized mental illness; we’ve criminalized disability; we’ve criminalized substance use disorder,” she explained.

While the Commission on Jail Standards only oversees jails, Gundu said commissioners can go back to their communities and advocate for more resources outside the jail to the legislature and to county leaders.

The jail isn’t just where people go when arrested, she said. It’s where a community's issues converge — often driven by its under investments.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org