On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Krishnaveni Gundu stands outside of the Harris County Jail (HCJ) and waits to talk to folks who are being released. She and her colleagues at the Texas Jail Project, a local nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated individuals, have been doing so for six months. More than 80 percent of inmates at the jail are unable to make bail and are awaiting their day in court; members of the Texas Jail Project team originally started canvassing to collect personal stories from those who did make bail and were leaving, so they could demonstrate the positive effects that a more generous approach to pretrial release could have in Texas’s most populous county. The project, though, quickly took a turn last year when Gundu encountered a deluge of individuals who didn’t want to discuss their relief at getting back to their families and jobs but instead express outrage at conditions inside the jail. 

In September, Gundu’s colleagues met Justin Smith, a 33-year-old who worked in food services and who spent two and a half months inside HCJ after being charged with aggravated robbery. (He says he’s innocent; his case has yet to go to trial.) Smith believes he caught the coronavirus after being placed in a cell in the jail’s processing center. He says he was displaying symptoms when he was moved into the jail’s general population, where he shared a dorm with 51 other men. Sweating, shaking, coughing, and having lost his sense of smell, Smith asked for medical care, but told Gundu he was denied it. “You can be dying,” he said, “and you get no help.” 

Gundu said Smith’s story was not unusual. “The people coming out seemed completely confused about time, thinking they had been in there for much longer than they actually were,” Gundu told me. She also kept hearing stories of those who didn’t make it out alive. Last year 28 Houstonians died while in the custody of HCJ, an all-time high, and four died in the first month of 2023 alone.

Those who were released kept telling Gundu that conditions at the jail were poor and that it was overcrowded. Between July 2020 and July 2022—during which the pandemic caused courts to close, creating a backlog of cases, and the state made it harder for those charged with crimes to make bail—the jail population increased 24 percent. The facility now holds nearly 10,000 inmates, almost 1,000 more than its daily average in early 2016.

Inmates have often been stuck at the jail’s processing center, the initial point of entry, for days longer than the 48 hours allowed under state law. Until they are processed—at which point medical histories are taken and individuals are photographed, fingerprinted, and officially entered into the correctional system—access to medication and medical care is typically denied, changes of clothes aren’t provided, and there are no showers and barely enough toilets. Gundu used the anecdotal information collected from her canvassing to file two complaints with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the regulatory agency for all county jails in the state. Her two complaints detailed the delays in booking inmates at the processing center. 

In the fall, the commission sent a notice of noncompliance to Harris County and its sheriff’s office, demanding improvements in conditions and prompting a state investigation. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez responded with a list of corrective measures that included outsourcing more inmates to other jails and decreasing wait time for inmates with medical issues. To date, the county has spent $9 million in taxpayer funding to house inmates in jails in Louisiana, and will soon spend as much as $26 million to outsource more of them to facilities in North Texas.

Officials with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office declined to respond to interview questions by phone and by email. A spokesperson referred Texas Monthly to an interview Gonzalez conducted with the local ABC affiliate, in which he acknowledged overcrowding in the jail, blamed conditions on understaffing, and, when asked who was responsible, declared, “[I]t’s no one’s fault but it’s everyone’s fault.”

The overcrowding has persisted through the winter. In February, the FBI announced it would investigate deaths at the jail. Meanwhile, Gundu continues to hear stories about the lack of medical care offered to inmates in need, such as Smith. “It’s worse than Rikers,” Gundu told me, referring to the notorious New York City jail. “It’s like a little city in there. It smells of despair.” 

The crisis erupting at the Harris County Jail comes amid major debates in the city and county governments about bail reform. In April 2017, U.S. district judge Lee Rosenthal ruled in a class action civil rights case that the County’s widespread requirement that arrestees post cash bail unconstitutionally discriminated against those who are indigent. A subsequent 2019 consent decree required that Harris County enact major reforms to its bail program. The county joined other polities across the country in discontinuing its requirement for cash bail in misdemeanor cases.

Research overwhelmingly demonstrates the success of that reform in reducing the number of arrestees jailed while awaiting trial. But statewide Republican politicians, including Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz, and even some local Democrats, including Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg, have blamed what they say is an increase in violent crime on the release of more arrestees without requiring that they post cash bail. Independent monitors have found no evidence to support the claim that ending cash bail correlates with the surge in crime.

In 2021, after Abbott deemed bail reform in Houston an “emergency” in his State of the State address, the legislature passed Senate Bill 6, which became a law that strips judges’ discretion and requires cash bail from those charged with certain categories of violent crimes, including misdemeanor assaults. SB 6 also mandates that counties issue a criminal history report for everyone who’s arrested. Some judges and magistrates say that requirement has created an enormous delay in scheduling bail hearings for arrestees. Since SB 6 took effect, the average wait time to get such a hearing in Harris County has stretched to six months, far longer than the national average of thirty days, according to an investigation by ABC13 in Houston.

According to judges and defense attorneys, officials in the district attorney’s office have requested that judges hold arrestees without bond, or require a high one, in every single case. “The number of deaths occurring at the Harris County Jail is tragic, but to empty the jail of thousands of felons is dangerous to public safety and an insult to tens of thousands of crime victims and the law-abiding people of Harris County,” Joe Stinebaker, Ogg’s director of communications, said. “Reducing the court backlog is and will remain a top priority of this office, but it is judges—not the district attorney and not the sheriff—who determine who is held in jail and who is not.”

As issues with overcrowding first came to a head in 2020, an independent consultant group, the Justice Management Institute, based in Arlington, Virginia, concluded that, to significantly decrease the jail’s population, the DA’s office would need to dismiss all nonviolent felony cases that are older than nine months. The authors of the report recognized that, even though that prescription might “seem unfathomable,” only around 40 percent of all felony cases in 2019, violent or nonviolent, resulted in a conviction, and of those convicted, most were released back into the community through probation.

In August 2022, there were 446 inmates in the jail charged only with nonviolent theft (including shoplifting) or drug possession. More than one-third of pending felony cases—some 41,000—were more than a year old. 

The stories of those unable to make bail are harrowing. Matthew Shelton, a 28-year-old who was diabetic, was denied access to his insulin and was found dead in March 2022. He hadn’t been able to make a $10,000 bond after being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. Kristan Smith, a 38-year-old mother and diabetic who was booked into Harris County Jail in April of 2022 on an assault charge and was unable to afford a $30,000 bail, was found unresponsive in her cell a month later; after eight days in the hospital, she was dead.

For most local leaders, solutions to the crisis at HCJ involve spending more money, hiring more personnel, and creating more space for inmates. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards cleared 1307 Baker for reopening, for the first time since it was flooded during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Gundu says she expects jail administrators to begin transferring five hundred inmates a day. In February, Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat and the county’s top official, announced that county commissioners had approved $645,000 to expand the jail’s program for mentally ill inmates who are deemed temporarily unfit to stand trial, about 2 percent of the jail’s population. The goal is for the program to meet inmates’ needs quicker and decrease the court backlog. 

Advocates for inmates don’t think the overcrowding issues can be solved by money alone. “You cannot hire or staff your way out of this,” said Elizabeth Rossi, director of strategic initiatives at Civil Rights Corps, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., devoted to criminal justice reform. Rossi pointed to Houston’s 2022 budget, noting that funding for public safety constituted nearly 60 percent of expenditures, whereas the national average is between 25 and 40 percent.  “Clearly,” she said, “the money isn’t going where deaths are actually happening: inside the jail.” 

Rossi said the county must work instead to limit the number of Houstonians who are held inside, via reforms to the bail and pretrial systems. “Relieving the backlog is going to come from arresting less people and dismissing cases,” she says. “That’s the only way to get out of this.”