At a Feb. 21 meeting, Harris County commissioners discussed conditions for inmates in the county jail, approving $1.6 million in contracts and reports aimed at assessing facilities and improving inmates’ quality of life.

In the third quarter of 2022, the average daily population at the county's jail rose above 10,000 for the first time since 2011, as previously reported by Community Impact. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards—the state agency responsible for enforcing minimum jail standards for construction, maintenance and operation—also found the jail out of compliance twice in the latter half of 2022.

Commissioners discussed the issues seen at the county jail in 2022 and considered how to address them Feb. 21.

“We're at ... maybe even past the point, where we need to be really seeing that connection between the investments and the results as [it] pertains to [the] jail,” Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

Commissioners unanimously approved a $1.4 million contract with AECOM Technical Services Inc. to develop a plan for assessing the county’s detention facilities. The plan will be used to prioritize investing in the county’s facilities so they meet Texas Commission on Jail Standards guidelines.

“Something's got to be done, particularly the issue of [the jail] not meeting standards. ... What do we need to do to get it to meet standards?” Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said.

In two unanimous votes, commissioners also authorized two reports to be performed by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other county offices on the causes of the rising jail population and on medical staffing in the jail and whether it impacts public safety. The medical staffing report will be presented at the court's regular meeting March 14, Hidalgo said.

Additionally, a $250,000 contract granting each county jail inmate two additional free phone calls as well as video visitation services was unanimously approved. The contract will begin in May and will be funded by American Rescue Plan Act funds. The program will be re-evaluated in four years after ARPA funds are expected to run out, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

Commissioners also considered adding six additional courts to help with the case backlog the county has been experiencing since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020. To create the six courts, county staff estimated the county would need to pay an estimated $34 million initially and then almost $17 million annually.

“As a former judge, I know there is a critical need for additional courts,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones said. “Frankly, more than six. Although, we need to figure out how we would pay for six.”

No action was taken for this discussion as commissioners opted to delay a decision until their next meeting.