The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, tasked with setting and enforcing minimum standards of construction, maintenance and operation to keep county jails safe is changing its inspection process to check in on some jails more — and others less.

Rather than inspecting every county jail every year — there are 240 — the agency, which currently only has 23 full-time employees, is moving to a “risk-based approach,” meaning it will inspect jails the commission deems “high-risk” between one and three times a year. The rest will be inspected every two years.

While the tool to identify high-risk jails is still being developed, the Bexar County Adult Detention Center will likely be deemed high-risk, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Risk will be based on things like compliance history, in-custody deaths, escapes and complaints, he said.

Jail inspections were near the center of a recent dispute about the condition of locks inside Bexar County’s jail. While the state commission has found the jail to be in compliance with its standards since late 2019, Bexar County Sheriff deputy union officials say the commission’s inspections during that time period didn’t catch many maintenance issues, including broken locks.

The planned changes to the inspection process, slated to take effect by September 2023, are the result of recommendations from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews state agencies every 12 years to see if they need to adjust operations, or if they’re even necessary anymore.

The sunset commission found a clear need for the Commission on Jail Standards to exist, but the June 2021 report “identified areas in which the agency has not kept pace with dynamic jail environments,” resulting in the massive retooling of administrative procedures.

The recommendations and subsequent legislation didn’t come with more funding for the commission, which has had a largely flat budget for years. That’s led to higher workloads and staff turnover even at the same time that jail inmate populations have increased, according to Wood, who has worked for the commission since 1999 and led it since 2012.

While the new inspection schedule should, in theory, reduce the number of inspections and staffers’ workload, implementing some of the other new rules require more work, Wood said.

To find out more about the changes facing this small but vital agency, the San Antonio Report interviewed Wood about the plans. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

San Antonio Report: What role does the Commission on Jail Standards play in the criminal justice system?

Brandon Wood: We operate in a very unique environment and that is that we are one governmental entity regulating another governmental entity (counties).

County jails are tasked with holding people safely and securely while they await trial. So the charges which they are currently facing — they have not been proven guilty. And the importance of ensuring that a minimum constitutional level of confinement is provided is important for several different reasons.

First and foremost, in order to ensure that we are not violating the constitutional rights of our citizens, we don’t serve as the jury — nor do the jails that we regulate. Jails are not there to dole out punishment. They’re simply tasked with keeping these individuals safe and secure. There is a small segment of the inmate population that is sentenced to the county jail, but the sentence is deprivation of their freedom — nothing more. They’re not in jail to be physically abused or mentally abused.

It’s also important to remember that they will be returning to society. So I think somebody early on in my career told me that: if you treat these individuals like animals, what do you expect when they return to society? So it’s just important that we uphold the values that we have in the United States.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky basically stated that you can judge a society by how it treats those that it incarcerates.

People often forget about the staff that has to work in this environment. And they are faced with some unbelievable challenges. They take up a duty that others are not willing to do. And if you’re creating a dangerous environment for inmates, then you’re creating a dangerous environment for your employees, your fellow taxpayers and your public servants.

SAR: What factors led to the new “high-risk”-focused inspection cycle?

BW: The agency’s budget has remained stagnant but the workload has definitely increased. Between 2018 and 2022, the budget increased slightly from $1.3 million to $1.5 million.

We were still doing inspections and making sure they got done, but it was at the cost of personnel. We were just making it happen — that in turn resulted in me burning staff out.

Inmate populations are rising and the makeup of the inmate population has changed. You have the court system in most areas of the state that is not functioning at pre-COVID levels.  You also have a slowdown in intakes from the state prison system — the outlets, or relief valves, are not working at full speed.  

The recent change in personal recognizance bonding has reduced the opportunity for pre-trial release to be applied to quite a few of these inmates — and then add the ongoing issue of staffing. Staffing was a problem prior to COVID and COVID only exacerbated that issue at the county jails.

SAR: Why does fewer jail staffers mean more work for inspectors?

BW: Inspectors are running across more issues that they have to address. We’re just experiencing more noncompliant jails due to capacity and staffing issues.

That means a lot more paperwork. 

SAR: What is a “high-risk” jail?

BW: The level of risk is determined by a risk assessment tool that takes into account multiple factors: inmate populations, whether they’re approaching their capacity; staff turnover; length of time the jail administrator has been in the position; deaths in custody.

We’re supposed to focus on the ones that we determined to be high risk and subject them to more frequent and more thorough inspections.

Depending upon their compliance history and the level of risk that we have determined that they actually possess the county could be subjected to two comprehensive inspections per year. Possibly three, it just depends.

The ones that are deemed low-risk, high-performing jails will be inspected no less than once every 24 months. 

We’ve run some test cases with the risk assessment tool and scheduling that we’ve put into place. The end goal is to have it fully implemented by September 2023. And that’s going to be in conjunction with the reimagining of the inspection process as well.

SAR: Is there a concern that some jails may not be identified as high-risk but could still have serious but isolated issues?

BW: Yes. I believe that the risk assessment tool will do a very good job of properly classifying jails that have a demonstrated history of compliance issues and allow us to focus on them, but I also believe that we will continue to experience situations in which there were no other indicators in place and it was a one-off occurrence. We will probably always experience that.

SAR: Does Bexar County strike you as a high-risk jail?

BW: They are all ranked, but we’re still trying to determine what number denotes risk.

I think Bexar County’s jail would be very high on the inspection priority assessment, and it’s not because of their size. Compliance history, deaths in custody, escapes and complaints are all generally better indicators of risk.

I’m not gonna give any jail the kiss of death and say, “nope, they’re gonna be high-risk forever.” The system is set up so that if jails are passing inspections and not experiencing deaths in custody, the number that is generated off that tool will drop them down in that ranking to lower-risk.

SAR: What is the inspection process like? 

BW: We have four field inspectors that are tasked with inspecting the county jails. But we do oftentimes assign other staff members to assist in areas, whether it be walking the facility or assisting in reviewing the paperwork, depending upon the size and issues that we’re experiencing.

All inspections are unannounced. I think it provides a truer picture of the conditions of the county jails and their operations. But that doesn’t mean that county jails don’t call each other and say, “Hey, the inspectors are in the area.”

When we conduct the on-site inspection, they will walk the entire facility: holding cells, booking, all housing areas. That gives them an opportunity to interact with the inmates.

The inmates will normally tell you if all the intercoms are working, all the toilets are working, showers too hot or too cold, medical issues, whatever. They’re not shy about voicing their concerns or issues.

The inspectors will note areas that need improvement or fixing in their report. That technical assistance is definitely where we can weigh in on an issue in an attempt to prevent it from becoming an area of noncompliance.

Once technical assistance is provided, we do not expect to see it occur at the next inspection. Oftentimes the jail is required to prove they’ve made changes via paperwork or photos within 30 days.

If the issue still remains, it would be an area of non-compliance.

I think it’s important to note that when we’re on-site, that is simply a snapshot of the condition of that facility on that day or days that we’re there.

SAR: Is it possible that there was an issue with the locks during an inspection at the Bexar County jail, but it just wasn’t identified?

BW: That is possible. I don’t believe it would be likely. 

If a lock was not functioning as designed, maybe an officer didn’t verbalize the issue to the inspector. There’s a lot of different factors that can play into that. They do their best to try to identify all those maintenance issues and document them whenever they do run across them, but there is the possibility that a lock or several locks may not have been functioning. I think in Bexar County’s case, the issue with the locks is that they operated as designed, but they could be compromised.

Unless an inspector had an inmate walk up to them and say, “hey, let me show you how I can compromise this lock,” they’re probably not going to be made aware of that.

SAR: What else is contributing to the agency’s increased workload?

BW: There was also a change required by the sunset review regarding complaints. And that basically doubled the number of complaints that we are receiving each month that we have to determine if they’re founded or not. And that’s really pulled a lot of our resources.

Information regarding how to make a complaint now has to be clearly listed in the inmate handbook and posted in common areas in the jail. Prior to March, there were about 200 complaints per month statewide. Now it’s averaging about 400 per month.

A majority of those are non-jurisdictional, meaning the jail can’t address them; the inmates write us to complain about their lawyer or their court case. But each one of those complaints that we receive has to be triaged and a determination made as to whether it will be investigated or not. 

SAR: So the sunset rules made an attempt to alleviate some of the workload burdens, but also have created more work? 

BW: It’s a zero-sum game. So I rob Peter to pay Paul. I’ve had to allocate more resources to the complaint side of the house, which means that something else is left to linger.

We currently have 23 full-time employees. And that’s it. There are 240 jails. There are some privately operated facilities that fall under our purview, depending upon the type of inmate they house, but the overwhelming majority are county jails.

We do not inspect the state prison system, juvenile facilities or city jails.

There’s always an inspection occurring somewhere across the state. And this is in addition to re-inspections and on-site technical assistance visits. It’s a never-ending process.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...