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Texas jails have an overcrowding issue. Is the state making it worse by delaying prison transfers?

A detention officer checks cells in the general population housing Thursday, March 7, 2024, at the Tarrant County jail in Fort Worth.
Yfat Yossifor
A detention officer checks cells in the general population housing last month at the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth.

Jail officials in some of Texas’ biggest counties say the state isn’t picking up convicted prisoners fast enough, leaving them in county custody for too long and taking up valuable bed space.

In the last few years, jail officials have reported understaffing problems, on top of ballooning jail populations – a combination that can result in dangerous conditions for prisoners and guards. Some jails, like Harris and Tarrant counties, have faced public criticism and lawsuits for deaths behind bars in recent years.

Most jail detainees are held pretrial as they wait for their criminal cases to move through the courts. But jails also hold “paper-ready” state prisoners. Those are people who have just been convicted and are waiting for transfer to state correctional facilities.

As of the end of March, more than 8% of the total population of the state’s 10 largest jails was awaiting transfer to Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facilities, according to state jail data. Broken down by jail, the numbers vary: Dallas County data showed about 9.5% of the population awaiting transfer, and Bexar County was at more than 11%.

Some sheriffs say these transfers have slowed down, leaving hundreds of state prisoners in their jails and taking up much-needed space. TDCJ acknowledges the slower average pickup times but argues they are well within the timeline set by state law.

State transfers have slowed down

When asked how quickly he’d like to see state prisoners picked up, Phillip Bosquez, an assistant chief with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office who oversees the Harris County Jail, said he preferred state transfers be conducted as soon as possible.

“I would love for them to come pick all their inmates up tomorrow,” Bosquez said. “I wish we could just take all 600 and drop them off today.”

Over the last year, the number of paper-ready prisoners being held inside the Harris County Jail has been steadily growing, according to county data. During the week of March 11, just under 550 prisoners were waiting to be picked up from Harris County – that number was hovering around 300 about a year ago. Yet about 100 prisoners have been picked up by the state on a weekly basis since March 2023.

This trend is happening in other jails across the state as the facilities continue to deal with understaffing and overcrowding.

The Harris County Jail has repeatedly failed state safety inspections and remains out of compliance with state standards, in part because of those problems. Both Harris and Tarrant counties have spent tens of millions of dollars on overflow space at private prisons, some of which operate under questionable oversight. One prison that both counties use, the Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility in Garza County, has failed a state inspection of its own.

“If I didn’t have any state prisoners right now, I could bring everybody back from Garza County,” said Charles Eckert, the executive chief deputy in charge of day-to-day jail operations in Tarrant County.

Eckert was counting the 334 paper-ready prisoners the jail held as of April 15, as well as 155 technical parole violators. People who are out of state prison but violate their parole – even without picking up new charges – also go to local jails, a sticking point for some county jail leaders who want the state to take care of them, too.

TDCJ Director of Classification and Records Timothy Fitzpatrick is the person in charge of accepting new state prisoners and placing them where they need to go. He couldn’t comment on the parole violators – they’re out of his purview, he said – but he maintained TDCJ is picking up newly convicted people well within the timeframe the state requires.

“It’s our obligation to be as fair and equitable with it as possible, because we are standing shoulder to shoulder with them in the challenges that they're facing,” Fitzpatrick said. “We know they're facing challenges with overcrowding, or they're facing challenges with staffing.”

A large brick building with the red, white and blue Texas Lone Star flag in front of it. There are trees and a fence in the foreground.
Lucio Vasquez
Houston Public Media
The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. Over the last year, the number of paper-ready prisoners being held inside the jail has been steadily growing.

Quicker courts lead to more prisoners

Under new state guidelines adopted last year, TDCJ has to pick up its prisoners within 45 days – but that 45-day countdown doesn’t start the day of conviction, Fitzpatrick said.

After someone is convicted, county jails have to send TDCJ transfer paperwork. The agency then has five business days to review it. This process involves looking at a prisoner’s history and determining where to incarcerate them, based on security, medical or other needs. If TDCJ has questions or concerns, the review might take longer than five days.

When TDCJ finalizes the paperwork, that’s when the 45-day countdown starts.

Pickups are slower now than in 2023, but still within the 45-day window, Fitzpatrick said. Today, the average time it takes TDCJ to pick up a prisoner is about 25 days – around 10 days longer when compared to last year.

Transfers got slower because of an influx of new prisoners, according to Fitzpatrick. During the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal courts across the state slowed to a halt, but now they’re working through their backlog of cases.

“Their courts are in full speed, and they are sending more than they've done, especially during COVID,” Fitzpatrick said.

Charles Eckert, executive chief of the detention bureau, talks about cell checks in general population housing in March at the Tarrant County jail in Fort Worth.
Yfat Yossifor
Charles Eckert, executive chief of the detention bureau, talks about cell checks in general population housing in March at the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth.

The total population in state facilities dropped to 117,000 back in April 2021, about a year into the pandemic, according to TDCJ data. Now, more than 132,000 people are serving time in TDCJ facilities. This comes as nearly 6,000 full-time correctional officer positions remain vacant – although Fitzpatrick said that’s not contributing to the slowdown in transfers.

County jails are feeling the same upward pressure from the court system, and “things are starting to get a little tight,” Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said.

“It is getting really uncomfortable for us to continue to do things the way we've been doing them,” he said.

Salazar is looking to TDCJ for help. His jail houses 200-300 paper-ready prisoners at any given time, and the longer they stay, the harder it is to keep the buffer of empty beds he needs to house everyone safely, he said.

“I really wish that they would pick up their pace,” Salazar said.

Not all big county jails feel the strain equally.

Travis County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Kristen Dark referred to the Austin-area county as a transfer “hub” that gets multiple TDCJ pickups per week. Similarly, El Paso County doesn’t feel the same pressure of delayed transfers, and is also right across the street from a state jail they can use if pickups slow down, sheriff’s spokesperson Vanessa Tena said.

What counts as 45 days?

The state doesn’t agree with officials from counties like Tarrant, Harris and Bexar on whether there’s a problem with state prison transfers.

Prisoners get picked up on a first-come, first-served basis, Fitzpatrick said. When a prisoner’s paperwork is finalized, TDCJ places them on a list and goes down the list chronologically. Some prisoners get priority if they have a specific medical need, or may need to be held in a higher level of security than a local jail can provide.

It wouldn’t be fair for big counties to get priority for pickups, even if they’re TDCJ’s biggest clients, Fitzpatrick said.

“How do you tell the sheriff that somebody is more important than somebody else?” he said. “We have an obligation to serve every single county.”

Part of the conflict comes from differing opinions on what “45 days” should really mean. Counties and the state don’t always agree on when the clock starts, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

“Counties may believe that someone is paper-ready, but in fact they are not truly paper-ready based upon the criteria that TDCJ has established,” Wood said.

The process of finalizing transfer paperwork, which happens before the 45-day clock starts, can take weeks, said Eckert, the Tarrant County jail chief.

“I think what they're doing is they're getting some extra days in there, and the county jails are having to hold those prisoners,” he said. “I think there's more people going over 45 days than what they will agree to.”

A man wearing a law enforcement uniform and a Stetson hat stands in front of a brick building that says Bexar County Sheriff's Office And Detention Center. Behind him stands a group of people, one holding a sign that says Poverty is Not A Crime.
Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Javier Salazar stands in front of the Bexar County jail during a press conference about bail reform in 2018. Like other Texas counties, Salazar says his jail is facing crowding issues that TDCJ is contributing to by not transferring people into state custody quickly enough.

As of last fall, counties can apply for reimbursement from the state if TDCJ pickups take longer than 45 days – a little more than $77 for every additional day, according to the state.

Tarrant County submitted a more-than $1 million reimbursement request that TDCJ ultimately denied, Eckert said.

Fitzpatrick confirmed the agency received a request from Tarrant County, reviewed it and denied it. TDCJ has never crossed the 45-day threshold, and no one has ever had to be reimbursed, he said.

Counties can work on their end to make the process faster, Fitzpatrick added. The fastest counties submit their transfer paperwork two or three days after a conviction.

According to Bosquez, Harris County is among the fastest regions to submit transfer paperwork to TDCJ, although he acknowledged that the process could be more efficient by switching to an electronic filing system.

Bosquez added that he believes the state can do more to alleviate the weight placed on local jails – a sentiment that’s been echoed by other jail officials across Texas.

Counties have to pay for each day a person is in their custody. Salazar doesn’t like having to go hat in hand to ask county commissioners for more overtime money for his jailers, he said.

“It’s not that we just love spending money,” he said. “We've got to take care of our people or they'll go find employment elsewhere.”

This story is a collaboration between KERA News and Houston Public Media. Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Tarrant County accountability reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.