Criminal JusticeLocal NewsUnderstaffed, Chaotic Harris County Jail Prompts Police Union Lawsuit

Harris County Deputies’ Organization officials and lawyers describe dismal conditions in an out-of-control jail with alleged rampant drug use and frequent assaults against both staff and inmates.
September 21, 2021
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A Harris County law enforcement association announced the filing of a federal lawsuit on Monday that seeks to force the county to address staffing shortages that are impacting not only public safety but the safety of both inmates and employees at the county’s jail facilities.

“Not only are we dealing with a civil rights issue, we are dealing with a human rights issue,” said David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization (HCDO) Fraternal Order of Police 39.

During a Monday press conference at HCDO headquarters, attorney Robin McIlhenny Foster explained that due to the staffing shortage jail employees were working 12 and sometimes 16-hour shifts without adequate bathroom breaks and were “having to use the restroom in garbage bags underneath their desks” or in some cases “soiling themselves.”

In addition to not having enough staff to provide breaks, jail employees are often conducting inmate checks and entering cells and holding pods alone, leading to dangerous encounters with inmates.

The 200-page complaint filed in the U.S. Southern District Court of Texas cites statistics from the sheriff’s office indicating that since January 1, 2021, there have been 918 inmate assaults on staff and more than 6,000 assaults between inmates. Some of the assaults described in the complaint include one on a pregnant staff member, and several on medical staff attempting to meet inmate health needs.

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Other examples detailed in the complaint describe portions of the jail facility on Baker Street as completely out of control with inmates setting fires that are often left unaddressed for 30 minutes or more due to staffing shortages.

Conditions at the jail are contributing to the growing employee attrition rate with 177 resignations just since January, according to HCDO.

John Doe v. Harris County notes that the county’s jail has had a long record of failing state inspections, most recently in December of 2020. In April of this year, the county was again cited for failing to perform adequate visual checks on inmates.

The suit specifically names Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, all four county commissioners, and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez as defendants. Plaintiffs include multiple current and former employees, but all have requested anonymity under state and federal “whistleblower” statutes since they say they fear retribution and retaliation.

Although Cuevas notes the problem has been decades in the making, he singled out the current commissioners court and specifically Judge Hidalgo for what he called “failed leadership.”

Foster echoed his comments, saying of commissioners court, “They have knowingly underfunded the jail.”

HCDO has also filed formal complaints with both the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Texas Jail Commission (TJC). 

“Currently over 100 inmates have been hospitalized and more than 3 have died by the influx of K2 in the facility that is allowed to exist due to inability to properly fund and staff the jail facilities,” reads the complaint to the DOJ Civil Rights Division.

Foster said that the lack of adequate supervision was not only allowing drugs to be smuggled in, but that inmates were manufacturing drugs within the jail facilities.

“From what we’ve been told, the toxic smell of the drugs in the jail is daily. It makes the detention officers ill,” said Foster. “We had one pregnant [employee] say she had to quit because they could not find a place for her to be where she wasn’t smelling that toxic smell.”

In a letter to the TJC, attorney David Batton alleges that reports on jail standards submitted to the state “are intentionally not accurate and do not accurately reflect the continual operation of the jail floors according to minimum jail standards…”

During Monday’s briefing, Batton said that the county was not properly applying federal funds available to address mental health issues at the jail, and that the budget approved by commissioners did not account for overtime pay necessary for jail staff, which in turn forces the sheriff’s office to pull funds from other areas.

“It’s a shell game,” said Batton. “We’re moving stuff around and hiding it in a massive Harris County Budget; you can’t tell what’s going on.” 

Cuevas said that the jail was probably short by about 500 officers and added that resources were being pulled from the law enforcement side to help assist with jail needs. 

“How much of a public safety crisis is that going to be for our citizens out on the street?” 

In an interview with Greg Groogan of FOX 26, Cuevas warned, “We do not have enough personnel to adequately respond to crimes.”

Crime in Houston and Harris County has continued to skyrocket with homicide rate increases surpassing those reported by Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles this year, and on Monday another suspect out on multiple bonds and under bond forfeiture shot at two Houston police officers killing Senior Officer William “Bill” Jeffrey.  

In response to the HCDO complaints and lawsuit, Gonzalez agreed that the current situation is “unsustainable,” but Hidalgo called the lawsuit a “political stunt,” and evaded a reporter’s question about increasing funding for the jail or law enforcement.

Foster emphasized that the HCDO is not seeking a monetary award in the lawsuit, but injunctive relief that will force the county to meet minimum jail safety standards. 

Cuevas added, “I came many times asking the court for money, pay raises, and personnel,” said Cuevas. “I came in peace, but today we’re ready for war.”

“We ask that God may have mercy on commissioners court because we are not.”

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.