Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $25 million contract to send jail inmates to the Giles Dalby Correctional Facility, a prison located in Post, a small Texas city near Lubbock. The county’s downtown Houston jail has reached capacity, with 10,073 people currently incarcerated in the three-building complex. This marks the second agreement with an outside facility this year — nearly 600 Harris County inmates are now housed at a Louisiana jail.

Harris County has struggled for years with overcrowding at the downtown jail. In 2015, the county sent inmates to Beaumont. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez managed to eliminate outsourcing inmates early in his first term in 2017, but the county later returned to outsourcing while grappling with a court backlog in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. In 2018, the county housed inmates at both the Fort Bend County Jail and Jackson Parish Correctional Facility in Louisiana at a cost of nearly $1 million per month, over the objection of defense attorneys who said the 300-mile distance to the Louisiana facility interfered with their ability to represent their clients.

In a 2020 letter to members of Commissioners Court, Elaine Borakove, president of the Virginia-based Justice Management Institute, advised: “The accelerated jail population is clearly an indication that your criminal justice system is quickly faltering.”

The Justice Management Institute worked with Harris County for years to reduce the jail population, as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

Even if the county added more district attorneys, court clerks and public defenders, “the backlog of criminal cases would still take years to go away,” Borakove wrote in 2020.

Currently, 8,136 inmates at the jail are awaiting trial. The median length of stay is 100 days, according to the sheriff’s department.

The outsourcing agreement with the Dalby facility is intended to alleviate overcrowding at the downtown Houston jail. In May, Garza County Judge Lee Norman announced that Dalby would transition from a privately-managed federal prison to a county jail, with plans to offer the 1,096-bed facility as a place to hold other counties’ inmates, Lubbock’s KBCD 11 reported. Tarrant County could join Harris County in sending inmates to Dalby.

The $25 million contract does not include funding to help Harris County families make the eight-hour drive to visit their loved ones who will be incarcerated at the facility, which is 475 miles from Houston.

Rather than increasing the number of jail beds, the county needs to spend money on solutions to eliminate the case backlog, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said in a statement Monday.

“Using taxpayer dollars to add even more capacity to the third largest jail in America doesn’t make us safer,” Ellis said. “It just makes us more reliant on a system that is failing. Instead, we must ramp up the systemic changes that we’ve made in Harris County, like our Violence Interruption Program and Holistic Assistance Response Teams, which are game-changing efforts to reduce the likelihood of residents’ engagement with the criminal legal system and makes our community safer.”

David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, said criminal judges are to blame for the court backlog, while people who are incarcerated are responsible for the distances their families may need to travel to visit them.

“The offenders that are in our jail are there for a reason,” Cuevas said. “If Commissioner Ellis is…concerned about whether or not these offenders’ families are having to travel so far to visit them, maybe these offenders should have thought about that before they committed these crimes.”

Inmates transferred to the Post facility would be able to visit with family members via video conferencing, according to the sheriff’s department.

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