Employee retention bonuses and new body cameras for detention officers are key components of the $7.4 million initiative approved by Harris County commissioners March 14 to improve jail operations.

What they’re saying: “Given the [county’s] existing $6 million deficit [and] the projected long-term deficit ... I don't think it's particularly a financially responsible decision to make to fund these programs, but I think it's a matter of life or death,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

The details: The $7.4 million package—to be funded by the county’s general fund and American Rescue Plan Act money—was approved unanimously by the court and will pay for:
  • $2,000 retention incentives for all detention officers at a total cost of about $3 million;
  • The purchase of new body cameras, which will include a panic button, to be worn by detention officers;
  • The creation of new leadership positions for the jail, such as jail population specialists and a director of health care quality assurance; and
  • The hiring of a third-party expert to improve retention efforts for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
“We hope this helps convince some [employees] to stay around longer to stabilize our workforce until the commissioner's court is able to implement more significant pay raises that we all agree are needed,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.

The backstory: The county’s jail is experiencing issues retaining staff. According to a March 14 presentation from Gonzalez:
  • One-third of the county’s detention staff leave their jobs annually;
  • 150 detention officer positions are currently unfilled and 100 sheriff’s office deputy positions assigned to the jail are vacant; and
  • $19.75 per hour is the current rate being paid to Harris County detention officers.
Quote of note: “Frankly, this commissioner's court could grant me 1,000 more positions today, but I could not fill them because there just aren't enough persons willing to do this work for the pay we offer,” Gonzalez said.

The full story: Harris County’s jail has been found out of compliance by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for 14 out of the last 20 years, Gonzalez said. Twenty-seven inmate deaths were reported in 2022.

The future: On March 14, commissioners also heard a presentation from Harris County Public Health on needs at the jail, such as:
  • Expanded virtual care for cardiology and neurology, which will be implemented this month;
  • Adding a mobile computed tomography scan unit, which is to be implemented this fall;
  • New facilities such as a medical unit—which would include almost 200 patient beds—a central clinic and a dental clinic, which will be considered in the fiscal year 2024 budget cycle; and
  • Funding for more medical officers and additional substance use help, which will be considered in the FY 2024 budget cycle.