Texas' largest county jail was under renewed scrutiny on Wednesday following the reported sexual assault of a female sergeant and a recent state inspection that found a lack of sufficient staffing has "contributed to the heightened level of tension and inmate hostility."
A five-page report by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards following a surprise inspection last month found employees at Harris County Jail in Houston were often late in conducting required checks of inmates in their cells and the jail was using supervisors and essential personnel to work housing unit assignments in order to meet the required staffing ratio of one officer for every 48 inmates. It also found a lack of cleanliness in inmate cells.
The county jail has received six notices of noncompliance between 2017 and 2019 from the commission, four of which mentioned the jail staff's failure to conduct adequate visual checks on high-risk inmates. The jail has also dealt with overcrowding and was described by some inmates in January as a "metal can of contagion" because of concerns about a potential COVID-19 outbreak.
The commission's latest report was completed on Monday, the same day authorities said the female sergeant was attacked.
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The sheriff's office alleges that as 27-year-old Jeremiah Williams was walking back to his cell from a Bible study class on Monday afternoon, he walked into an administrative office and attacked the female sergeant, who was alone.
The sergeant was taken to a local hospital and later released.
"We're working on this. We're not minimizing, saying everything is great," Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during a news conference on Wednesday.
David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, the union representing deputies, said his group has been trying to bring attention to these problems for years but its concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
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Cuevas said the attack on the sergeant showed "we don't have the security measures in place to protect our employees." He said the sergeant was in "good spirits all things considering."
In September, the union filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of current and former jail workers against county officials alleging the county had created unsafe conditions at the jail by failing to adequately fund and staff the facility.
Williams has been charged with aggravated sexual assault in connection with the alleged attack. He was being held in the county jail after being arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman at a park in September 2020 and trying to attack another woman. Williams' attorney did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
"We're going to do everything we can to make this better, to make sure that our facility is safe for our team members, but also for those who are under our care and custody," Gonzalez said.
Part of the sheriff's office internal investigation will determine if Williams should have been escorted back to his cell by a detention officer, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he is working with officials to increase staffing beyond the minimum amount required by the state and to try to reduce the backlog of cases in the court system caused in part by the pandemic that has kept the jail population high. The average stay of an inmate at the Harris County Jail is around 200 days while in the rest of the state, it's around 60 days, Gonzalez said. There were nearly 8,900 inmates in the jail on Tuesday.
"I have and continue to commit to doing everything possible to ensure the sheriff's office gets the resources it needs to improve jail conditions," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county's top elected official.
County officials have increased the jail's funding from $186 million in the fiscal year 2017 to $245 million in the fiscal year 2022 and have approved funding to increase training class sizes and recruitment efforts.
Cuevas said he doesn't think Hidalgo and other county leaders have done enough to fix the jail's problems.
Gonzalez said his agency is still trying to determine if the attack on the sergeant was a result of understaffing.
"There are some things that need improvement, but I do not believe structurally the jail is broken," Gonzalez said.