The recent dispute between the deputy sheriffs union and county officials over whether locks inside the jail are broken or simply ready to be replaced serves as a microcosm of the intractable challenges facing the jail and its insufficient workforce.

On Tuesday, Commissioners Court, which holds the purse strings for the jail, approved roughly half a million dollars to replace almost 400 locks within the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.

The new leadership at the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County welcomed the news but said the move “barely scratches the surface” of the challenges facing both guards and inmates at the 30-year-old jail. In addition to aging infrastructure, a staff shortage means guards are overseeing a larger and, according to Sheriff Javier Salazar, more dangerous group of inmates.

Because hundreds of positions remain unfilled, the county has spent millions on mandatory overtime.

Amid these concerns, the Commissioners Court and the Sheriff’s Office commissioned two different consultants last year to evaluate the facility’s operations and make recommendations for improvements. Those reports are expected next month.

While the jail has passed state inspections since late 2019, union officials say those inspections aren’t thorough enough to catch many maintenance issues; meanwhile, they say the hundreds of thousands of mandatory overtime work hours have often led to physically unsafe working conditions.

County leaders blame the jail’s reliance on mandatory overtime on low staffing levels and the coronavirus pandemic, which created delays in the court system. That’s kept more inmates in the jail for longer periods of time.

While some deputies appreciate the extra pay that comes with overtime, others chafe at being forced to work additional shifts, worried about exhaustion and safety. For them, there’s no immediate relief in sight.

“It irks the crap out of me that things move at the speed of government around here,” Salazar told the San Antonio Report on Friday, but the sheriff said he’s hopeful the consultants’ reports will provide a road map for systemic improvements — and that the county will fund them.

More inmates, more serious crimes

County jails are intended to provide temporary detention for people awaiting trial and transfer to a prison or mental health facility, along with those serving sentences of about a year or less. When inmates are convicted of more serious crimes, they are supposed to be transferred to state or federal prisons.

That doesn’t always happen because of overcrowding at those facilities, meaning some inmates remain at the jail even after they’ve been convicted. The pandemic made matters worse, and jail populations are higher than pre-pandemic levels in more than a quarter of facilities across the U.S., according to a recent Prison Policy Initiative report.

Inmates at the Bexar County Jail peer out from a window in June 2020.
Inmates at the Bexar County jail peer out from a window in June 2020. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Bexar County jail has a total capacity of 5,100 inmates. The population is considered “exceptionally high” this year, with more than 4,500 inmates locked up as of late June. In 2020, the daily population averaged about 3,700.

Salazar said the jail also now includes more inmates accused and convicted of felonies than in the past.

“We’ve got a lot more serious, violent people in the house,” he said, and they are spending longer periods in jail as they wait for space to open up in state prisons. These conditions have made it more dangerous for guards, he said.

“Our deputies are getting attacked with more frequency — obviously it hurts recruitment to say that sort of stuff — but it is what it is,” Salazar said.

The sheriff finds himself in a Catch-22: working conditions are worse in large part due to staff shortages, but it’s hard to hire people when dangerous working conditions make the news.

“And so then people resign, which means my overtime [cost] goes up.”

Less staff, more overtime

The Sheriff’s Office has long struggled with staffing issues, but now “the jail is on the verge of imploding,” said Ronald Tooke, president of the deputy sheriffs union.

The county is losing deputies to other law enforcement agencies and industries that pay better and are safer because of the “toxic burnout” that comes from working in the jail, Tooke said. Adding to the strain, deputies often have to wait weeks and even months before getting paid for their mandatory overtime. Commissioners must approve overtime expenditures, slowing down payments.

Bexar County’s fiscal year 2022 budget includes 1,162 uniformed and non-sworn positions to staff the jail. As of June, there were officially 338 vacancies, but with graduating cadet classes coming on board in the near future, Salazar said there are probably closer to about 250 unfilled uniformed vacancies at the jail.

In previous years, newly hired deputies were required to work at the jail for two years at the start of their careers, but the requirement was removed from the union’s most recent labor contract with the county — which also included pay raises.

The shortage means the jail staff will work more than 335,000 hours of overtime this year, with the county paying nearly $13.5 million for those hours — $5.2 million more than was originally budgeted.

Salazar continues to step up recruitment efforts: buying airtime, hosting job fairs, promoting a $2,000 signing bonus for cadets and launching a “Boomer Campaign” to attract older cadets. He talked to state legislators this month about expanding qualifications for licensure and continuing education programs in an effort to boost recruitment.

Thus far, it hasn’t been enough.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar speaks during a Commissioners Court meeting in October.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar speaks during a Commissioners Court meeting in October. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Overtime expenses are “not going to ease up at all,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. “If anything it could get worse because of COVID shooting back up again.”

Some relief could arrive next year as the court system makes progress on its backlog, Wolff said.

Felony courts in Bexar County should get through their pandemic-related backlogs by early next year, according to a memo sent by Bexar County General Administrative Counsel Ana Amici to Presiding Judge Ron Rangel on Thursday.

“Hopefully that will pick up the pace“ of inmate discharges, Wolff said, but it doesn’t fix that prisons don’t have room to house them. “Nobody has the capacity. So we’re not the only ones.”

Tooke said he’s hopeful the consultants’ studies will help the county address staffing issues, but he’s not optimistic that the reports will lead to meaningful maintenance improvements at the jail.

The jail’s broken lock issue is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Broken locks, deferred maintenance

County officials insisted last week that the contract approved Tuesday wasn’t to replace broken locks.

“The locks were never at any time, broken,” Bexar County Public Information Officer Monica Ramos said in an email on Wednesday. “They have always functioned properly.”

A Bexar County detention officer unlocks a pass-through window to a cell at the Bexar County Jail on Friday. The tray allows officers to pass food and documents to inmates, as well as place handcuffs on inmates in a more controlled manner.
A Bexar County detention officer unlocks a pass-through window to a cell at the Bexar County jail on Friday. The tray allows officers to pass food and documents to inmates, as well as place handcuffs on inmates in a more controlled manner. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

But both union representatives and the sheriff said some locks are indeed broken, while others have been tampered with by inmates.

“You have old, broken locks that are there and inmates talk; they know how to defeat these locks,” Salazar said. “So, yes, they need to be fixed. They need to be replaced.”

In January, an inmate was stabbed to death in a unit where gang members are housed after two other inmates bypassed at least one lock inside the jail, Salazar said at the time.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said it is those lockdown units where gang members are usually held that will receive the new locks.

But it’s not just about the locks — many more repairs are needed, Tooke said last week.

“Our jail is in disrepair due to the lack of preventative maintenance … creating an even bigger security issue,” he said.

Ramos disputed that description of the jail, citing the April inspection report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which found the detention center in compliance.

It’s unclear if that inspection included checking locks, but the report does not mention broken locks. Commission officials could not be reached for comment by deadline.

“The state of disrepair of [the jail] is in line with being a 30-year-old facility,” Salazar said. “Would I love it if we had that kind of money? Absolutely. [But] … I’m realistic enough to say there’s no way in hell they’re ever going to give me $150 million to update the jail.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at