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The overcrowded jails of Montgomery County

Sometimes it’s hard to be a County Commissioner.

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Montgomery County officials are facing a dilemma partly of their own making: What to do with an ever-growing jail population after selling off another lockup.

The county’s jailers are struggling to find space for inmates — with dozens on occasion being forced to sleep on the floor or be shipped to a jail outside the county. The 1,200-bed jail is one of only five statewide — and the only one in the Houston region — rated “at risk” for overcrowding by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Next door to the county jail, separated only by a cyclone fence topped with razor wire, sits the Joe Corley Detention Center, built by the county in 2008 for $45 million. While the 1,500-bed facility was planned to someday handle jail overflow, the inmate population didn’t rise quickly enough, prompting the county to sell it to a private company in May 2013, said Commissioner Craig Doyal, who is poised to become county judge in January after a Republican primary win.

Commissioners said they felt pressured into the sale because of an Internal Revenue Service deadline that could have cost the county the tax-exempt status on the bonds used to build the center.

Commissioners had pledged during the bond election that local inmates would fill 30 percent of the center within five years — but not a single inmate had ever been placed there. They had instead been allowing the U.S. government to pay to house federal prisoners there.

Florida-based Geo Group Inc. bought the center to house undocumented immigrants, leaving commissioners on Monday with little choice but to begin reviewing new proposals, costing in the $200 million range, to expand the jail.

Doyal points out that the county earned a $20-million profit from selling the center to Geo for $65 million. At the same time, Geo pays the county an additional $250,000 per year in taxes for the center and $500,000 for managing its federal prisoner contracts.

In addition, the proposed jail expansion, if completed, would be four times larger than the detention center.

Yeah, $20 million plus $250K per year is still a long way away from $200 million. I know I was a math major and all, but I don’t think you need any particular expertise to realize that. And if the last new facility never needed to be used, why would you need a new one that’s four times bigger than the one you have now? And another thing…you know, I’m just going to hand the mike to Grits.

The main difference between this situation and a circus is that clowns in the circus are professionals. The commissioners court’s ill-considered launch and inept (and possibly corrupt) handling of the whole private jail mess has been a comedy of errors and misjudgements that would be funnier if local taxpayers weren’t footing the bill. I’d be rather surprised if voters approve a nine-figure jail bond so they can go through the whole jail-building brouhaha again. (Wanna bet commissioners try to issue the debt without voter approval?)

Grits fails to understand after all these years why, whenever public officials suggest new jail construction in response to “overcrowding,” reporters don’t immediately begin to question the causes and solicit solutions for excessive pretrial detention. More to the point, why didn’t the consultants hired by the county suggest those options? Like other jails in the state with an overcrowding problem, most Montgomery jail inmates have not been convicted of a crime (and will receive probation even if convicted). Instead, just more than two thirds of them, according to a 7/1 TCJS report, are in jail awaiting trial, still technically presumed innocent. Most simply cannot afford bail. Statewide, about 58 percent of defendants in county jails are awaiting trial; half is not at all an unreasonable goal.

Whether the old jail needs renovation I cannot say. But to the extent the issue is building more capacity, it’s likely Montgomery County officials – particularly local judges – could resolve that  without new jail construction just by expanded use of personal bonds for lower risk defendants who can’t make bail. They should try that before asking taxpayers/voters to trust them with another jail building scheme.

Yeah, what he said. To be as fair as I can be to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court, they do represent a fast-growing county, so it’s not completely unreasonable that their current jail needs are growing as well. That doesn’t detract from Grits’ point, of course. There are dumb ways to handle that kind of growth, and there are smart ways to handle it. You can see which way they’re leaning up there. Hair Balls has more.

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