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Prison Inspections: Why should you care?

Do you know the conditions of the nearest jail to you? I never gave it any thought until the county judge proclaimed that the county received a passing inspection report from the state.

What does it take to receive a passing score?

I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far about Texas county jail inspections. I have yet to pull together the chaotic info I’ve received or not received yet from city jails (I wonder if anyone has ever asked these city jails recently?)

First, I’ll attempt to answer the question: Why should you care?

Here’s some reasons that might resonate with you:

Safety: If people aren’t safe in prison, Correctional Officers (CO) and Inmates, then how can much else be achieved in prison? Many Texas prisons are understaffed. I learned over the phone that the Tarrant County COs work 52-hour work weeks until more COs can be hired. According to a supervisor there, that’s a mild case of understaffing. According to him, Denton county’s staffing situation is worse. Some prisons have failed inspections partly due to overpopulation in the prison. Collin County received a passing score even though it had one death and one suicide during that year.

Physical Health: If tuberculosis and other diseases can move fast through a packed together population, then think of the families affected beyond those prison walls – those of the inmates and staff. It may start in prison, but it sure doesn’t end there. The local town is affected as well.

Mental Health: How many people are incarcerated but should instead be receiving mental health services? Options are limited there since prisons profit off their population (prisoners in Texas that work while in prison don’t even get paid. Not only that, but they also have to owe fees and pay for basic supplies. Some fees: court, probation, parole fees, police transport, case filing, felony surcharge, electronic monitoring, drug testing, sex offender registration.) And Texas has been closing state mental health hospitals recently. So, the waiting list for beds is longer with fewer beds.

Some legislators don’t consider air-conditioning a necessity in Texas prisons: I read an article from the Marshall Project. In the article, Democratic Senator John Whitmire was quoted saying: “We couldn’t afford to do [air conditioning in prison] if we wanted to. But number one we just don’t want to.” These words come from the man who is the Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. And has been state senator for 38 years. So, it’s hard to tell what prisons are doing for air-conditioning. Is it in certain sections like the sick bay? According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) per the minimum jail standards, temperature levels shall be reasonably maintained between 65 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 degrees Fahrenheit in occupied areas. But inspection reports don’t indicate that information.

Justice and Fair Treatment: I’m not saying that I agree with all the points of Dostoyevsky’s quote below, but it does give me food for thought. Not everyone in prison is a criminal. Some have yet to be convicted or represented in court. Some are innocent but can’t afford legal representation or the money to pay the fees to get out. Read about plea bargaining and police tactics in interrogation, then you might better understand how some people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.

“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If I appealed to you to take an interest in the conditions of prisons near you, then here’s the next steps you can take.

I asked the county for its county jail inspection from the TCJS, which does state-level oversight of your state’s county jails. The county doesn’t share their jail inspection with the public and directed me to this TCJS site to place the request for a county inspection report. No charge or apparent limit for this information. Please note that TCJS does NOT regulate city jails. That’s a WHOLE other post with info that’s still very confusing to me.

I’ll admit that what I’m not clear on next is what can be done with the information, particularly the negative write-ups, on the inspection report. I suggest contact the county commissioners, jail administrator, and sheriff with your concerns from the inspection report. Each contact is listed on the first page of the report. It may take more than one email or phone call, but I believe your perseverance will be rewarded. Prisoners and COs and their families won’t know to thank you, but you can hold your elected officials accountable that the work gets done.

Many inspected items (see some below) involve reviewing a RANDOM sample of 10% of the prison population up to 50 files. But the two big exceptions to this rule that alarm me are Discipline of inmates and Grievances filed by inmates. These two are key to holding prison staff accountable for treatment of prisoners. When I talked over the phone with TCJS Complaint Department, he told me that counties get to decide how to file discipline and grievance. Some counties file those items individually in inmate files. Other counties group all discipline and grievance files into 2 big binders. If it were up to me, I want to see Texas counties required to file both in big binders for easy and extensive review. To me, something shady is going on until someone proves me wrong.

I’ll leave you with some questions I have and am seeking answers on from the TCJS inspection report.

· What other items are NOT included in the inspection? Besides air-conditioning

· What’s the importance of drill time? My guess is evacuation drill for safety.

· What kind of cells and bed configurations are there? How well do each work?

· What’s the significance of noting “contract inmates?

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