Friday, August 21, 2009

Inspection turns up problems in the city jail, too

This time it's the City of Houston facing criticism over the conditions at its two municipal jails. According to the Houston Chronicle, a court-appointed inspector, the city's two jails are overcrowded and filthy and need to be replaced.

The problems are so severe that the city may not be able to tap into federal funds to screen inmates for immigration status, as that program would require the city to hold those inmates until Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided to pick them up.

City jails have been under court-ordered inspections since a lawsuit over the jails' conditions in 1989. Up through June 2008, the inspections were carried out by criminal justice consultant Gordon Kamka (now deceased). His last report (in June 2008) was just two pages long and noted that some phones weren't working and some inmates had been forced to choose between having a mattress or having a blanket.

Either Mr. Kamka wasn't looking, didn't care or covered up the problems, because in May 2009, the new inspector, David Bogard, found, shall we say, a shitload of problems.

Here are the highlights:

• • The frequent use of “interlocking,” a controversial restraint technique in which a person's hands are cuffed behind the back and connected to shackled legs in a way that forces an inmate to lie on his stomach or side on the floor. The report says interlocking has been discontinued by many law enforcement agencies across the country because of “concerns about it being degrading and potentially medically harmful.”

• • Inadequate investigation of a death in custody in November 2008 in which police behavior was examined but not any potential problems in the jail.

• • Food that was improperly cooled in refrigerators in a kitchen area that had been cited by the city health department for unsanitary conditions and gnats.

• • Inmates who had stayed in the jail for days without being arraigned.

• • “Unacceptable” delays in following up on inmate medical care.

Police officials said they are confident that Mr. Bogard's most recent inspection (this month) will show that improvements have been made. The city thinks building a new jail/intake facility and turning its operation over to Harris County would be a good idea. The voters disagreed last year in rejecting the proposal in a referendum.

Here's an idea for the powers-that-be in Houston -- how about issuing more personal bonds on minor cases? It's absurd to fill the jails with people charged with driving on suspended licenses, possession of small amounts of marijuana or criminal trespass. Think fishing -- catch and release.


Anonymous said...

Catch and release is fine, but most of the people caught for minor crimes can't bail out, obviously, or they would. Therefore they can't pay any fine, so the jail time is the substitute for the fine.

It sucks, but if you can't pay up, time is the only answer.

Houston DWI Attorney Paul B. Kennedy, said...

Thank you for your comments. I think we would both agree that there are some people that need to be in prison. My concern is that we are going to overload the system to such a degree that those folks are allowed to walk right out.

Anonymous said...

There's no doubt that drug crimes are huge taker of resources that are needed elsewhere. But short of legalization, the best the system can do is short sentences or fines, and if you can't pay, you gotta stay.

Until laws change regarding drug crimes, there will be a lot of people in jail.