Ever since Hurricane Harvey demolished the Harris County Criminal Justice Center in downtown Houston in 2017, the justice system has been facing a backlog of mounting cases. This has been increasing the pressure put on the Harris County Jail—including its growing population of inmates.
Harris County Jail’s Inmate Overpopulation Takes a Toll on Staff
According to Darryl Coleman, the chief of the Criminal Justice Command of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, there were 8,845 inmates at the Harris County Jail in July of 2017. “8,000+ people in our jail has our seams busted,” Coleman stated at a public safety meeting in July. According to Coleman, Harris County is still repairing the building, but the county judges are still sharing courtrooms and aren’t able to adjudicate cases as efficiently.
The county is repairing the building, but judges are still sharing courtrooms and are not able to adjudicate as many cases, he said.
“[That] cuts down on the amount of trials that can be held, because the judge now does not have a courtroom five days a week; he has to share it with another court. That reduces the amount of trial time these courts can have.”
The Inmate Population at Harris County Jail Continues to Grow
According to Coleman, Harris County Jail books around 300 inmates and releases 200 on a daily basis. “It’s always backfilled with more coming in than coming out,” Coleman stated. “The wheel isn’t running.”
As most can imagine, a large and growing inmate population puts strain on jail staff, as the Harris County Jail is required to have a 1 to 48 staff-to-inmate ratio at all times. According to Coleman, employees are now being forced to work overtime just to ensure the Harris County Jail remains in compliance.
“Right now, everyone within my command has to work at least two double shifts a week. That’s two days of 16 hours. Many of them are having to do three overtime shifts a week. It’s been this way; this is not new. It’s been this way for a few years now.”
The Reopening of the Justice Center in 2020 Should Alleviate Pressure
According to Coleman, stretched staffing resources is an ongoing issue at the county jail. He also said that the reopening of the justice center, as well as the ongoing bail bond reform efforts and the Harris County Jail’s existing diversion programs should help alleviate some pressure.
Coleman stated that the center may reopen as early as the spring of 2020. “Once it’s fully functioning and every judge has their own courtroom back, we should see an increase in trial courts taking place.”
Also see: Top 3 Crimes in Harris County
Mounting Concerns Over Harris County Jail Treatment of Inmates
Inmate overpopulation, along with a shortage of staff, has led to a number of problems—most of them directly impacting inmates. In April of 2017, former Harris County Jail inmate Dominique Crutchfield was left in an inmate transport van for almost 11 hours.
Crutchfield said he was loaded into an HCSO Sprinter-type van in order to be transported to another location of the Harris County Jail complex in downtown Houston. He wasn’t the only one—around a half-dozen inmates were also with him. However, they were unloaded from the van without a problem; Crutchfield and one other inmate, Cristian Fuentes, on the other hand, were forgotten.
Crutchfield and Fuentes were left overnight in the van for over 10 hours, handcuffed to each other and unable to move. They had no access to a restroom or water for almost 11 hours, and stated that it was the “toughest night” he ever spent.
Dominique Crutchfield, 35, was being detained for a probation violation regarding a firearms theft charge, and Fuentes, 18, was held for a warrant. Crutchfield has since stated that he’s been talking with a lawyer and is considering filing a civil lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for the neglect.