New Challenges and Old Problems: County Jail Operations


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County jails are undergoing major changes in the way they deal with inmates suspected of being mentally ill, a move propelled by legal requirements to improve the health and safety of individuals in confinement.

Brandon Wood, executive director for the Texas Commission on
Jail Standards, outlined the current and upcoming changes in jail administrative procedures at the County Management and Risk Conference held in Galveston this spring.

Senate Bill 1849, which took effect Sept. 1, 2017, requires counties to screen incoming inmates for mental health problems and, when merited, direct the defendants to treatment. The law is known as the Sandra Bland Act, named for the woman who died in the Waller County jail in 2015, just days after being arrested during a traffic stop. Authorities later ruled the death a suicide.

Wood acknowledged that the law puts new burdens on jail personnel. “But for someone with mental illness, jail is the worst place. It’s loud, it’s intimidating, with all the things that will exacerbate the problem. Trying to get these individuals out of jail and into treatment is what needs to happen,” he told conferees. 

He said the Commission on Jail Standards began adopting rules last August to implement the new legal requirements. The comprehensive law will take effect in several phases during the next two years. He outlined the major components:

Mental health referral

Jailers detecting mental illness or intellectual disability in a defendant during the intake screening must now notify a magistrate within 12 hours — no longer the previous standard of 72 hours. The magistrate can order an evaluation and will start looking for alternatives to place the individual, Wood said.

Continuity of medication

A qualified medical professional must review “as soon as possible” any prescription medicines a prisoner is taking at the time they come into custody. Physicians, RNs and LVNs are qualified to do the review, but emergency medical technicians and pharmacists are not allowed to fill this role. The medical professional will determine what medication the inmate needs while in confinement.

Telemental health/Telehealth

By Sept. 1, counties are required to give inmates access to telemental health services 24 hours a day, as well as telehealth services 24 hours a day if health services are not otherwise available. This service has proved to be especially helpful in areas of the state that have a shortage of medical providers, Wood said.

Electronic monitoring

County jails must install automated electronic sensors or cameras by Sept. 1, 2020, to ensure that individuals considered to have the potential of harming themselves or others are monitored during confinement. Typically, this equipment is intended for use in high-risk areas such as holding cells and detox cells, Wood said, adding that the use of video in jails has proved to be useful for some time now. For counties with 96 beds or fewer, the state can provide grants to help purchase this electronic monitoring equipment. The Legislature approved $1 million for the Prisoner Safety Fund.

Jail administrator exam

Starting March 1, anyone appointed as a jail administrator is required to pass an examination created by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. The online test of 75 questions is intended to demonstrate competency in working with the inmate population and must be passed within six months of the employee hire date. Also, permanent jailers will have to complete at least eight hours of mental health training.

Death in custody investigation

Now independent law enforcement agencies, rather than authorities having any connection with operations of the county jail, must investigate deaths that occur during confinement. Wood said the Texas Rangers are leading most of those investigations, although local authorities may assist.

Reporting

Sheriffs are now required to submit monthly reports to the Commission on Jail Standards
on any serious incidents involving county inmates. That includes incidents of suicide or attempted suicide, death, assault, escape, use of force and events that result in serious bodily injury. The accumulated data will provide the Legislature more insight in the varying levels of risk experienced in operating a county jail, Wood said.