The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Prison Progress?

By Jordan Smith, October 19, 2001, News

On Friday, Travis Co. Sheriff Margo Frasier appeared before the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in Amarillo to present a plan that should get the county's jails up to code by Jan. 1, 2002. All three of the county's detention facilities failed their yearly surprise inspection in May. This was the fourth year in a row the facilities have failed for a host of infractions, from overcrowding (forcing a number of inmates to sleep on the floor) to inoperable toilets, lack of running water and an unacceptable ratio of officers to inmates.

TCSO spokesman Roger Wade says the county is moving forward quickly to make improvements. One of the biggest security problems cited by the commission was understaffing. Wade says the department has already hired 69 new officers in the past month, using funds allotted by the County Commissioners' latest budget, passed several weeks ago. "We are very happy with our personnel section," he says, "and the Sheriff is very pleased with the progress we're making."

TCJS Executive Director Terry Julian, who in the past has expressed concern regarding the county's ongoing non-compliance, says the commission is encouraged by Frasier's progress. "We feel like they are making headway," he says. "We feel they've met the requirements we asked for and they have turned in all their progress reports on time." Frasier is scheduled to present another update on Dec. 13 at the commission's next meeting in Austin.

However, "Naked City" continues to receive complaints about jail conditions from inmates and their families. Furthermore, the federal courthouse is rife with petitions from a cross-section of inmates claiming violations. While it's likely that some are untrue, many are so similar as to be convincing. Reoccurring problems include insufficient recreation time (state standards mandate one hour of exercise three times a week), lack of access to educational programs (also mandated by the state's administrative code), and general unsanitary conditions in the facilities. All of these issues have come up during past inspections.

Last week, Bill Pierce, father of yogurt shop defendant Maurice Pierce, wrote a letter to Frasier complaining that his son has been denied access to education. Pierce, who is housed in the Travis Co. Jail and has been awaiting trial for nearly two years, wants to get his GED. At one time during his jail stay, Pierce alleges, he was denied exercise and sunlight for three months straight.

In the past, Wade has told the Chronicle that exercise time was limited because of the staffing shortage, which the county is in the process of correcting. But Pierce's father says Frasier's office has not responded to his repeated concerns. "And I don't expect they will," he says.

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