One in three Texas jails have failed state inspections so far this year, and more than a fourth, including Harris County's, failed last year, an Associated Press review of Texas Commission on Jail Standards records found.
When inspected, the jails ranged in population from seven inmates to more than 9,000, and infractions ranged from mold to structural problems to inadequate staffing, Commission director Adan Munoz said. Many are crumbling with age and lack adequate space for female inmates.
"Most of the jails that we're currently inspecting are pretty much at the minimum anywhere from 10 to 15 years old or older, which starts to create infrastructure problems," he said. "Equate it to a home, except being used as a much larger volume. The facility begins to get worn down."
Of 38 county jails inspected by March 20, 13 have failed. Seventy-three of the state's 268 jails failed in 2006, among them the Harris County Jail, one of the state's largest with more than 9,000 inmates. The facility remains overcrowded, though state inspectors have given Harris County credit for making a "good faith effort" to fix the problem.
Harris County commissioners will likely ask voters in November to approve $200 million-plus in bonds that would add 4,600 beds.
Munoz said just about any infraction of the commission's standards could make the jail noncompliant, and most jails corrected the problem before the next inspection. Of the 37 jails currently deemed noncompliant, he said only four had to have remedial orders against them, all for overcrowding.
One jail closed down
In recent years just one jail, the Howard County Jail, had to be shut down on the spot. The jail's smoke evacuation system wasn't working.
"That created a serious life safety issue for anyone in the facility," Munoz said. "Ninety percent of our mission is to try to help counties stay in compliance so their liability issues can be reviewed."
Bexar County Jail Administrator Dennis McKnight viewed the inspections positively.
"I treat them as a resource myself," he said. "If there was a lawsuit that had to do with the jail and it met their standards, they've got a defense to it."
His jail holds more than 4,000 inmates and would have passed its Feb. 14 inspection had it not been for some faulty wiring on the jail's fire alert system. While the sprinklers and alarms were working, an indication light in the control room did not. County maintenance workers did not tell him about the problem, he said.
"For the want of a $5,000 fix, an inspection is lost," he said.
Cameron County, on the Mexican border, has had both rapid population growth and escalating levels of crime relating to drug smuggling.
Gov. Rick Perry's Operation Linebacker, which sent about $10 million to border county sheriffs to help enforce the law, has swelled the jail population even more, Chief Deputy Gus Reyna said.
"We have been able to obtain four additional officers through Operation Linebacker, also overtime, so we are doing more intense patrols.
That creates an issue as to more arrests, and it floods our jails," Reyna said.
Fannin County failed inspection over water knobs.
Sheriff Kenneth Moore said he now realizes an inmate could use a knobbed or wheeled faucet control to injure himself or another inmate. But he said converting all the cell sinks to push-button faucets wouldn't come cheap to a $2.4 million annual budget strapped by salaries.
He said vendors that make the approved products know they can get top dollar.
"The people that sell to counties that have jails kind of have you in a Catch-22," he said. "They know you've got to have it."