In the News: Harlingen Municipal Jail Lacks Clear Oversight

By Nick Braune

If you spend ten days in jail in Harlingen, Texas, you will not get a chance to shower, according to a KRGV Channel Five news report last Thursday.

The report said, “Municipal judges are putting people behind bars in a jail that’s not prepared to protect or care for them…Families tell us the cold and crowded jail doesn’t have pillows, soap or showers.”

KRGV’s report points up a number of interesting problems. Although the jail is really not prepared to hold someone over a day or two (no kitchen to prepare food, no medical facility, no shower), people are still being ordered to spend a week there for not paying traffic fines and for other offenses. KRGV questioned the head jailer, who pointed the finger at the local judges. But the judges refused to speak on camera.

City Manager Gabe Gonzalez seemed defensive speaking to the reporters: “We can’t tell judges how to sentence prisoners. We can’t interfere in that process. There isn’t anything saying that we can’t hold them there for 10 days or more. Let me make it clear, we’re not violating any policy by keeping them there for that many days.” However, that apparent lack of policy is one of the problems.

KRGV concluded that “no set safety standards or rules exist to protect inmates in municipal jails.” Channel Five interviewed Adan Munoz, the head of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, but he is charged only with watching County Jails. Munoz says there is “no state oversight at all” over municipal jails.

Munoz told KRGV that it is just a matter of time before there is going to be a lawsuit, that someone who is kept there for five or ten days without the basic necessities like mattresses is going to become ill or get an infection. He raises the question of how someone who is diabetic is treated; the article says that the jailers go out and pick up sandwiches off the shelf and cookies for the inmates. There seems to be no concern about nutrition. One person reported their meal was a cream filled cookie and coffee; others report having a sandwich for breakfast. KRGV also interviewed one woman whose sister is diabetic and being held for eight days.

I did a quick interview with Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, an attorney from the South Texas Civil Rights Project.

Braune: I noticed that you were quoted on air that STCRP is watching the situation. It was a really good TV news piece.

Spencer-Scheurich: Yes it was, and I hope there is a follow-up, but one angle didn’t come up that I would like to mention. There may be thousands of outstanding warrants in Harlingen and poor people are being thrown into jail for nonpayment. Some protection has to be granted to the indigent — the criteria for which is that the person is receiving public benefits (food stamps, Medicare) or their expenses exceed their income — these people are being put in jail essentially for failure (inability) to pay. Going over the speed limit or failing to fasten the seatbelt is hardly a jail-able offence. But they are in jail for not paying fines or missing payments on them. They shouldn’t be in jail. Judges should not put the indigent in there. The founders of this country intended to protect us from debtors prison.

Braune: Do you think it may be worse in Harlingen than other places?

Spencer-Scheurich: Yes. So far, it does seem worse, egregious. Why are they using jail stays so much, and why such long stays? I’m not sure at this point. They do have a new jail, maybe they just want to make sure it’s used.

Braune: I agree with Adan Munoz of the Texas Commission, it probably won’t be much longer before there is a lawsuit on this.

Spencer-Scheurich: Well, we are hoping people come forward to tell their stories now.

* * *

Mayoral candidate Joe Rubio, who spent years on Harlingen’s police department and has some fame for asking difficult questions of city leaders, posted a follow-up on a local website. He asks if there is consideration given to pregnant women held for three days in the cold cells and only receiving a cookie and two sandwiches. And what if a young man vomits all over his shirt and the jailer throws away his shirt? Isn’t he left shirtless with his complaints unheeded? Rubio says people wait outside in rain or heat for over an hour to bring a relative a bag of chips — this is allowed — but one person’s gift was rejected last week because the bag was too large: “You are limited to a small bag of chips and one drink.”

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