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Harris County Jail: Mental Health Pioneers or Not?

Jan 16th, 2013 | Category: Harris County, Lead Article

“Perhaps the sheriff, Joe Arpaio should have one of his chief deputies take a short trip to Texas and visit the Harris County Jail in Houston. This detention facility is the size of two football fields that houses more than 10,000 inmates. The jail is the largest mental institution in the state. Some inmates say it is the best mental health care available to them in Houston, and it costs the county about $27 million a year. Looking at their strong efforts to organize and manage a most difficult task, their online program outline is something for all detention administrators to look at for future short term and long term planning using evidence based methods to treat mentally ill inmates inside a jail.

“According to their online brochure the county describes their mental health ward in a narrative that states, ‘In 2006, the Sheriff’s Office invited experts from both the National Institute of Corrections and Advocacy, Inc. to tour our facility and to make recommendations for improving the existing program. Subsequently, we implemented many of their suggestions, and we also implemented new “Best Practices” from other sources. The result of this process was the establishment of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Mental Health Unit. The new unit is a collaborative effort between the Sheriff’s Office, MHMRA, and the Harris County Psychiatric Center, and it represents a new paradigm for the treatment of mental illness within a detention setting.’

“‘The primary components of the Mental Health Unit may be summarized as the three “P’s:” Personnel, Process, and Plant, with Plant referring to the physical structures that exist within the detention setting.’

The Mental Health Unit is supervised by a Lieutenant, and is comprised of several Sergeants and 64 Deputies and Detention Officers, all of whom are specially trained in Mental Health-Crisis Incident Management.” Mental Health Unit staff receive the following training: 1. TCLEOSE Mental Health Peace Officer course (40 hours) 2. Suicide detection and prevention (8 hours) 3. Use of force in the jail setting (16 hours) 4. TCLEOSE Intermediate CIT plus 8 hours of role playing (24 hours) 5. MANDT training (24 hours)

Harris County officials have seen the number of mentally ill inmates multiple in huge numbers which is typical of what is happening all around the country as many state hospitals have shut down and no longer providing treatment as before. Just like in Arizona, Texas lawmakers are considering proposals that would reduce community-based health care services for adults and children and for community mental hospitals. The strained budget will impact jails in a most negative way as the funds for treatment of these special management inmates will be reduced to critical levels that will impact their wellbeing and the community’s ability to manage people with mental disorders and disabilities.

No doubt these budget cuts will jeopardize their ability to implement future projections that include “short and long-term projections include the planned Joint Processing Center with an estimated date of completion in 2011.

This facility, which is important to the strategic plan addressing the longer term health care responsibilities of the Sheriff’s Office, will include the construction of a state-of-the-art psychiatric care unit and an enlarged and more capable medical infirmary. Further, planning are underway to determine how the Sheriff’s Office can best contribute in pre- and post- incarceration interventions.”

Carl ToersBijns also goes on to write that Harris County Sheriff’s Office “embraces its role as an integral component of the Mental Health Community and strives to be a catalyst for positive change within that community.”

TJP states: Harris County Jail does have much lower suicide states than other jails with smaller populations. But do the jailers on its staff as well as inmates and family members themselves believe this facility is really doing all that it can for incarcerated people with mental problems? Please comment if you have experience there.

Thanks to Carl ToersBijns, a retired deputy warden and author of books about prisons and their cultures, for this blog.

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9 years ago

While it is important that the city and county jails use “best practices” in dealing with mentally ill inmates, that is not the correct setting for these people. They should be treated with proper medication in a mental hospital setting by trained medical personnel. The jail should be an “integral component of the Mental Health Community” only in the sense that it can be an initial intake facility. It should never be a PRIMARY facility of the Mental Health Community, which it is today….bob lindsey

9 years ago


9 years ago

Fact remains, the mentally ill break the law and become prisoners. Jails shouldn’t become mental hospitals, but Harris county at least is addressing the huge problem…..
More mental health courts ,more money for help supervising those that need help…it’s up to the state to a lot more funds and then maybe the jail population of the mentally ill will decrease.
The courts shouldn’t be so quick to send them to prisons and jails…
We need more mental hosipals,instead they are closing there doors for lack of funds..
Texas is 48th in the Country for mental health funding..

8 years ago

I have a son who is severely mentally ill and have contacted everyone I know in Texas who can help with the issue and basically there if no help available. You can get on a waiting list which is appprox. two years long to get help but what is to be done in the meantime. He has been incarcerated and was treated the same way. He was thrown in solitary for weeks at a time without medication’; this only made him worse! Something needs to be done to assist the mentally ill in Texas. It’s the worse state in the US to find assistance! Then everyone wanders why we have the problem of the mentally ill committing crimes like we see on the news? Should we wander? This problem affects not only the mentally ill person but their families, friends and the community as well. It’s a helpless situation.

6 years ago

My daughter didn’t have mental health issues until she was incarcerated. It’s been 7 months and they have medicated her without a diagnosis and they have literally made her worse by keeping her locked up with filthy conditions. She has told me of dirty showers. She’s become sick along with other inmates throwing up for days. When will this madhouse stop? If they don’t have enough money how are they medicating inmates and how can they treat conditions if only a selected few doctors have priveleges to practice in jails.