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.
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.
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.