Last week the House Committee on County Affairs met again to address county jail standards, inmate care, training, coordination among different local and state agencies, the Sandra Bland case, and other recent jail suicides that have occurred in the state. Once again, I would like to thank the members of this committee who came from across Texas to make this a great hearing: Rep. Dustin Burrows, Rep.Ramon Romero, Jr., and Rep. Stuart Spitzer.
The meeting was a success because the members and the groups invited to testify are working together to solve the challenges that our state faces. I am sure that our colleagues in the Senate will also work with us when they have their first hearing tomorrow. If you were not able to view the hearing live, you can watch a recording of it by clicking here. I have also included a brief summary of the hearing below. It in no way captures all of our great discussion, so I strongly encourage you to watch as much of the full hearing as you can.
Brandon Wood, Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards
Mr. Wood informed the committee that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards is reviewing the recommendations that I and the committee suggested. Click here to view those recommendations. Including, a reevaluation of the inmate intake form that will provide more objectivity and guidance for jailers who perform intake duties. Thanks to a collaborative effort, the Commission plans to have the improved form out by November 1st of this year. Additional mental health training for jailers is also being considered. Also, moving forward the Commission will be stricter when granting variances for county jails. Mr. Wood also said the Commission is open to all potential solutions to minimize inmate suicides.
Kelly Rowe, Sheriff of Lubbock County
Sheriff Rowe explained that a collaborative effort has already begun with different agencies to address the challenges our county jails face. Such as, creating proper procedures to ensure the right people are notified when a possible mental health risk is identified. Sheriff Rowe added that the new intake form will help better identify inmates who need help, but who are not currently in crisis. Additionally, Sheriff Rowe suggested that high turnover in county jails due to elections causes a need for constant training of new jailers. Additionally, efforts have begun to make training more available by providing online courses and breaking down larger training sessions into smaller modules. Sheriff Rowe suggested that expanding tele-medecine, tele-health, and tele-psychiatry is an inexpensive way to expand care in rural county jails, and that these programs have been successful when implemented.
Chris Kirk, Sheriff of Brazos County
Sheriff Kirk echoed many of the sentiments of his colleague Sheriff Rowe. Sheriff Kirk explained the need to increase the diversion of inmates who need mental health assistance. To address this issue more funding will be needed. In addition to funding, Texas also needs to address the shortage of mental health professionals. Sheriff Kirk also expressed that crisis intervention teams have helped divert people who are having a mental health crisis out of jails.
Lauren Lacefield Lewis, Assistant Commissioner of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Division at the Department of State Health Services
Ms. Lewis said that the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) is excited about beginning their peer reentry pilot program next year. The program has the potential to be an effective low cost solution to preventing relapse in persons released from jail. Ms. Lewis also said that community health services is a more cost effective way than jail to treat those with mental health concerns. DSHS is also working with local providers to help bring services to mental health patients in rural areas.
Lee Johnson, Deputy Director of the Texas Council of Community Centers
Mr. Johnson explained that the reduction in mental health services has caused more people with mental health issues ending up in jail. Additionally, the most common route to a state mental health hospital is through first going to jail. Mr. Johnson also pointed out that Texas is still trying to recover from the mental health cuts of 2003. Mr. Johnson also explained how local community centers are benefiting from federal money to set up the necessary infrastructure to get people the help they need.
This hearing reaffirmed my belief that we are going to be able to work together to meet the challenges that we face. In the spirit of working together the song of the week is “Wake Up” by John Legend and the Roots featuring Melanie Fiona and Common.