(Editor's note: This article has been updated throughout.)
The Grayson County Jail has been ordered to retain all prisoners who would normally be transferred into state custody as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice evacuates correctional facilities and relocates inmates amid the severe flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt announced the indefinite order and the explained the county’s options at a news conference on Wednesday morning. Watt said he hopes the order will be temporary and be in effect for only a few weeks, but he cautioned that the department understands the severity of the flooding and that the jail may have a higher-than-normal population for the foreseeable future.
“And so we’re asking our law enforcement partners in Grayson County to exercise as much restraint on bringing folks to the jail as possible,” Watt said.
The Grayson County Jail currently houses 410 male and female inmates. Watt said the jail has a functional capacity of 440 inmates and that the facility is used to transferring 8-10 inmates to state correctional facilities each week.
Hurricane Harvey, made landfall in South and Southeast Texas as a category 4 hurricane last week and has dumped more than 52 inches of rain on Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city. The storm has set a continental record for rainfall and as a result, much of the city has seen widespread flooding and tens of thousands have been evacuated. Southeast Texas is home to a number of state correctional facilities and those too were affected by the flooding, prompting the state order to hold inmates.
“We’re just going to have to wait and see how much damage to the infrastructure and the facilities that are down there,” Grayson County Jail Administrator and Capt. Brian Ford said. “And of course it’s going to affect all 254 counties, so it’s going to create a back log. It’s going to take longer to fix than them just opening the jails.”
Both Watt and Ford laid out the temporary and long-term options the jail has considered as it inches closer to its functional capacity. On the temporary side, Watt first began by asking area police departments to use other options than taking offenders to jail for low-level offenses that don’t require incarceration.
“I wanted to make sure that the community understands, and really our law enforcement community understands, that if you don’t have to bring somebody to our jail, we would prefer that you not,” Watt said. “And the best example I could give you on that is the law allows for a person who is arrested for, say, public intoxication, to be turned over to a responsible adult and you take charge of that person. You don’t have to bring them to jail.”
Ford said the next best option to ease a swelling inmate population would be to issue personal recognizance bonds.
“Our next avenue is PR bonds on which we generally work with the JPs or the County Judges, the district judges, the district judges on that and sometimes through the District Attorney,” Ford said. “So, it takes a group effort in order to get some of that done.”
Watt said any offenders released on such bonds would be carefully considered by the Sheriff’s Office and would not pose a significant threat to the public.
“My commitment to y’all and to the community is that we will not release any violent offenders,” Watt said. “That’s not going to happen. But we will be looking for people who are not violent and just have trouble making good decisions, but are less harmful to our community than anybody else.”
The sheriff’s office also floated the possibility of increasing credits for qualified inmates’ time served, as well as financial credits that inmates can put toward court costs and fines. Ford said both moves could help to move inmates through the jail more quickly.
If the order persists and the Grayson County Jail reaches its functional capacity, Watt said the last and least-desired option would be to move inmates to other prisons, some of which could be in Oklahoma.
“If we run it to the point where we can’t keep anymore people, one of the alternatives is to move some of our inmates to other jails,” Watt said. “We will try very, very hard not to move prisoners to other locations because we have to pay $50 per head to do that. And that would be a tremendous impact on Grayson County, so that will be the last ditch effort.”
Ford explained that the jail already spends $54 dollars per day on the custody and care of each inmate and that the growing number of inmates the jail will now have to retain will increase costs. However, Ford said any budgetary cuts made by the GCSO would not affect safety or inmate care.
“We have a minimum standard that we have to provide for the individual,” Ford said. “So we’re not going to cut anything as far as how we take care of the inmates. They’re going to be provided the same care, security, medical that they currently do.”
Before Wednesday’s conference, the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office announced plans to hire six new entry-level detention officers in the months ahead. Ford said the state order will not accelerate the hiring process and that the agency expects to get new employees in place by October.
“We’ll be fine as far as man power,” Ford said.