The sheriff’s request came about because a number of inmates awaiting trial have been housed in Louisiana since Hurricane Harvey caused a backlog in cases in Harris County last year. A total of 719 inmates are currently outsourced from Harris County jails, including 550 inmates in Jackson Parish in Louisiana, Gonzalez said at the meeting.
The arrangement came about because the Louisiana location is the most cost-effective option, he said. However, outsourcing creates problems for attorneys who need to visit with clients in person as well as for family, various speakers said at the meeting.
“We all agree we shouldn’t be outsourcing,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.
Patrick McCann, past president of Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. He said the pretrial movement of Harris County jail inmates out of state presents a hardship for the inmates and their families.
“For the lawyers, a trip to Fort Bend County would be preferable to a five-hour trip to Jackson Parish,” McCann said.
Attorney Amalia Beckner also spoke in the public comment portion of the meeting, stating she can not effectively represent her clients who have been transported to Louisiana, and they must be moved back to Harris County for her to meet with them.
“There was evidence I needed to review with him in person, it’s not realistic or possible for us to drive 10 hours in one day plus a two-hour meeting … and they have that constitutional right to have me effectively represent them,” Beckner said.
Sheriff Gonzalez said he had stopped the regular practice of outsourcing after he took office in 2017, but after Harvey, the slowdown in courts required some outsourcing, and the Louisiana facility was able to take a large number of inmates at once.
“We’ve never denied access to attorneys,” Gonzalez said, noting the inmates can be transported back to Texas in three days.
Housing inmates in-state costs nearly twice as much as housing them in Louisiana, Gonzalez said, which was another consideration in choosing the facility in Jackson Parish.
After the meeting, Gonzalez said the goal is to eventually bring all of the inmates back in-state.
"We're trying to find [other jails] and as soon as we can get the court moving, we’ll try to bring everyone back. We’re trying to find closer locations," he said.
In other portions of the discussion about Harris County Jail, Emmett said the county should consider allowing contact visits in the future to mitigate the long-term effects of incarceration on families.
“We all talk about how important families are but our criminal justice system does a lot of things that destroy families,” Emmett said. “Anything we can do to help maintain contact between inmates and families I think is a good thing.”