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The Jail Commission’s Report Cards

Nov 9th, 2018 | Category: Lead Article

by Kevin Garrett, Hogg Foundation peer policy fellow at Texas Jail Project

Our county jails are supposed to be holding people in safe and healthy conditions, but that’s not always the case. In my experience, I often felt as if guards were more concerned with how clean the pod was rather than if an inmate was seriously ill and needed help.

The regulatory agency that oversees jails doesn’t focus on health care much either, but to be fair, they have a huge responsibility and limited resources. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards is tasked with inspecting the 241 county jails spread over 268, 000 square miles, but they only have five inspectors. The violations they find are greatly varied, ranging from a lack of hot water to guards failing to check on inmates, from a lack of recreation to a failure to give inmates their proscribed medication.

When the inspector finds violations, it issues an out-of-compliance report, and then the jail is given a reasonable amount of time to make changes and come into compliance. Each jail that is found out of compliance gets posted on the Commission’s website, but the jail’s bad “report card” is removed when remedial measures are taken. But at Texas Jail Project (TJP), we download and save those non-compliant reports here for members of the public and the media.

TJP monitors violations of the minimum standards and we are especially concerned with any violations of standards concerning the treatment of inmates experiencing mental illness or those living with a mental disability. 

Section 16.22 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure was passed in 1993 to help identify inmates booked into a county jail who have a mental illness or intellectual disability. The jail administrator or command officer is then legally required to notify the magistrate—a type of judge, often a Justice of the Peace. Since the Sandra Bland Act was passed by the legislature in 2017, that notification is supposed to happen within 12 hours. 

The magistrate is then charged with making sure the Local Mental Health Authority (LMHA) assesses the inmate’s mental health condition. However, when checking the Jail Commission’s out of compliance reports in October 2018, I found 38% of the non-compliant jails had failed to either correctly screen or correctly notify the magistrate.  

That’s a high percentage, considering that legal protection has been in place to identify and help the mentally ill in Texas county jails for 25 years. I have seen jailers ignoring people experiencing mental illness inside the jail. Often it was that the jailer knew nothing about mental illness’ and did not know what to do with an inmate talking to himself—which is why the legislature passed a law requiring people to be assessed by a professional.

There may well need to be more training and tougher corrections ordered for jails that are found to be violating the important standards having to do with mental illness. 

(To read all the standards for county jails in Texas, please check out the list on the Secretary of State’s website.)


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