At last! HPD to be out of the jail business by March 2018 as well as experience a county-run ‘open booking’ operation

Tom Kennedy

By March 2018, the Houston Police Department will be out of the jail business, turning over the job of processing and detaining an average of 120,000 prisoners every year exclusively to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

This complicated administrative move culminates detailed plans that have been in the works for the better part of two decades.

 

A Better Tomorrow

The new facility will amount to “one-stop shopping” for officers and prisoners. Prisoners are now “double booked,” first in an HPD jail and later in the Harris County Jail. This inefficiency and waste of valuable resources has been a major topic amongst officers from their academy days until their retirement.

Today, Patrol officers with female prisoners often take a number of hours to travel to the Southeast Jail at 8300 Mykawa Road.

Tomorrow (2018), officers will go to a more -centrally located facility at 700 North San Jacinto in the downtown detention zone, with convenient access to the freeway system.

What a difference it will be, not just for convenience but for safety’s sake. Frequently, at the HPD Central Jail officers must escort prisoners across an outside parking lot. Some prisoners have attempted to escape while being escorted into the building.

The Joint Processing Center (JPC), with a tightly secured sally port built to accommodate 50 patrol cars, officers no longer will have to worry about escorting a prisoner who might run for it. That’s only one cause for relief.

There are plenty of others, such as a safer open booking concept, modern technology and proper space to assist officers in completing their law enforcement mission, as well as more conveniently located social services for many non-violent inmates.

Staffing requirements will diminish at HPD and intensify at the HCSO. The JPC will free up 100 HPD officers to get back on the streets or in investigative jobs more directly related to law enforcement. Another 200 civilian employees at the Central and Southeast jails will be given the opportunity to be hired by the county sheriff and trained to perform similar duties at the new JPC.

The open booking concept was developed after what amounted to a nationwide study of modernized inmate processing centers now in operation.

The two prime movers in this far-reaching project are HPD Lt. Patrick Dougherty and HCSO Capt. Greg Summerlin. Both are long-time experts in the detention process, Dougherty in the city and Summerlin in the county.

They have worked together since 2001 to ensure that the new operation will facilitate every move taken by officers and deputies in the booking process, with the goal of improving efficiency and limiting the arresting officer’s stay at intake to no more than 20 minutes.

In an interview with the Badge & Gun, Dougherty and Summerlin virtually echoed explanations of the JPC’s construction, operation and updated convenience for law enforcement officers.

“The city, the county, and all stakeholders are winning in this project,” Dougherty explained. “In Texas, the sheriff is responsible for the jail and he does an excellent job. It takes up a lot of the sheriff’s personnel and budget. HPD’s core mission is to provide law enforcement, crime prevention, and preserve the peace in the community. Running a jail diverts resources from our mission.”

Under an agreement approved by both City Council and Commissioners Court, HPD will pay a share of the JPC annual operating cost. The city also will pay $30 million of the total $100 million construction cost of the JPC. Mayor Annise Parker said the change should enable the city to save $4 million annually.

 

An End to Many Headaches

Instead of the multiple headaches regularly experienced by HPD officers in the current redundant process, the new facility takes away many of those pains. Both Dougherty and Summerlin are familiar with each one of those pains and have “taken pains” to plan an open booking facility that will put Houston/Harris County booking practices into the 21st Century.

How?

To begin with, instead of booking a prisoner once at HPD and again at Harris County – where three buildings are involved in the process – an officer will go to just one location to use the “open booking” prisoner intake and receiving areas that actually resemble airport terminal seating. These areas have no maze of walls and locked cells like current booking areas.

The two areas are the intake waiting area on the first floor and the receiving waiting area on the second. Dougherty said HPD officers will officially transfer their prisoners to the county on the first floor. There, the sheriff’s staff takes over the inmate processing that continues on the second floor. On the third floor, the JPC will be equipped with eight direct-supervision cell blocks containing 552 beds which will be used primarily for short-term housing.

HPD officers shouldn’t have much business on the second floor unless it’s to go to a municipal court which includes a specially designed witness box on the non-secure side. This design enables officers to keep their duty weapon while testifying.

“The open booking concept allows inmates to be under constant supervision by HCSO officers,” Summerlin said as he described open booking. “This will be a very structured environment. Inmates will not be placed in a holding cell unless they are uncooperative or combative.”

This open concept will enable officers to proactively prevent altercations from occurring, reduce the number of use-of-force incidents, and provide a safer environment for officers and inmates. It will provide a more normative environment to facilitate processing functions.”

Dougherty added. “The open concept seems to work much better. We have seen it work effectively in numerous jails across the country.”

“A lot of it depends on the staff,” said Summerlin, a stickler for training over the years. “You need a well trained staff.”

As you might expect, the more violent or uncooperative prisoners will be put in nearby holding cells available on both the first and second floors.

Once securely inside the Joint Processing Center, an inmate need never have to go outside – while in custody. The jail tunnel system will be his passage to the other jail facilities or the Criminal Justice Center to visit a court.

On the first floor, HPD will also have DWI processing areas, investigative interview rooms, evidence room, narcotics control center, line-up rooms and administrative areas. In addition, the first floor contains the intake area for all law enforcement agencies. Officers will have privacy to write and update their offense reports.

The center also goes the extra mile for prisoners, who both Dougherty and Summerlin believe will get through the process much more quickly and efficiently.

Convenient Social Services

For one thing, the public won’t be required to go to two different locations to post a bond for city offenses and another for the more serious county offenses. Both bonding offices are adjacent to each other in the same first floor area.

Today, another frequent issue centers on whether certain prisoners need to be referred to the proper social agency rather than incarcerated. Tomorrow’s JPC will include enhanced areas for medical and mental health screening and other stations available for matching inmates with alternative services to help reduce recidivism.

The new building will have support services like chaplain services, re-entry and education programs, a mechanism for identifying veterans,, and many others. This plan is aimed at providing the services that might keep potential repeat offenders, or “frequent flyers,” from returning to be booked again and again.

There is a court component to the JPC, too.

Today, a prisoner might have to appear in two different courts at two different locations. He could face misdemeanor charges in a municipal court at either Central or Southeast as well as more serious charges in the county court system.

Tomorrow, an inmate can go to the second floor of the JPC to one of the two county probable cause/Justice of the Peace courts or to the one municipal court.

The second floor also will contain two line-up rooms, public video visitation kiosks, pretrial services, AFIS, secure holding cells, a full-service intake clinic, pre-release staging, dress-in and clothing storage and ICE. The intake clinic will be able to provide an enhanced level of care, which will reduce the frequency of a prisoner being rejected at intake and requiring the arresting officer to transport the prisoner to a local hospital.

The two veteran law enforcement officials traveled all over the nation to visit the open booking concept. Particularly enlightening and inspirational for the Houston/Harris County model were the following:

  • Hillsborough County (Tampa, Florida)
  • Salt Lake County (Salt Lake City, Utah)
  • Orange County (Orlando, Florida)
  • Tarrant County (Fort Worth)
  • Clark County (Las Vegas, Nevada)
  • Cobb County (Marietta, Georgia)
  • Travis County (Austin)
  • Collin County (McKinney)
  • Bell County (Belton)