By Emily Banks Wooten
Despite some hardships, the Polk County Jail recently received confirmation from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that the most recent limited compliance review, conducted in September, demonstrated that the facility remains in compliance with Texas minimum jail standards.
Polk County Sheriff Byron Lyons and those that operate the jail, Captain Lawrence Dawson and Lieutenant Matthew Brown, were quick to attribute the successful compliance review to the jail staff and the tenacity with which they do their jobs.
“Passing the compliance review this time around was a big deal because we’re working so short-handed. We’re down 13 jailers and three transport officers,” Lyons said. “The staff has been working really hard. Some coming on their days off. Some working over. The captain and lieutenant have been having to come in and work.”
Citing the strenuous jail standards that must be met, Lyons explained that he is required to have one officer for every 48 inmates. Typically, there is one in control, one in the kitchen and one in booking, although the preference would be to have two in booking. On Thursday, there were 203 inmates in the local jail which requires five jailers, in addition to the three already mentioned.
Lyons said this limited compliance review occurs annually, and an audit, or inspection, occurs every two years.
“This is not just a state issue. This is a national issue,” Lyons said, adding that agencies across the nation are all understaffed. He said he recently attended a mental health conference and learned that Harris County is about 170 jailers short.
When asked if he attributed the shortage to insufficient pay, he said pay always plays a factor but that the overwhelming issue is the ongoing mental health epidemic.
“Your jails and correctional facilities have become mental health facilities. The average age of the applicant pool is 18-25 and 90% of them are female. These inmates are in jail because there is nowhere for them to go. They are violent, they have episodes, they have psychoses,” Lyons said. “Our jailers are in there dealing with this, saying, ‘This isn’t what I signed on for.’”
Chief Deputy Andy Lowrie concurred.
“The state took away the beds needed for mental health. This is a crisis the state needs to take back over and throw money at,” Lowrie said.
“They’re putting more money into outpatient care and that’s great, but some of these people need to be hospitalized,” Lyons said.
“We have four or five right now waiting on beds. There is one that needs help and jail’s not the place for her to get help,” Brown said.
“Locally, we have the Burke Center, but by their protocol, they can’t come into the jail and provide counseling, so we contracted with Serenity House. They come in and counsel and prescribe meds. It’s getting better,” Lyons said.
“They’ve also recently started group sessions,” Brown added.
“These things are helping, but it’s always elevated,” Lyons said.
“I’m so proud of the entire staff of the Polk County Jail, who were working short-staffed, or they were working over and on their days off to maintain the safety and security of the facility and those entrusted to us,” Lyons said. “The folks in the jail have worked hard. They’ve worked their butts off.”
“That’s the hard work of my staff. We really want to recognize our staff and their perseverance,” he said.
To illustrate the perseverance the staff has exhibited, Dawson relayed a quote he recently heard in a training class. The gist of it was that the person breaking the law is the problem. The arresting officer deals with the problem at the time of arrest and the courts deal with the problem once or twice a month, but the jailers deal with the problem 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
While the commission found the local jail to be compliant, there were a few areas where suggestions were made regarding improvements. These suggestions concerned staff signatures to medication, training and exercise logs, as well as emergency generator logs.
“It’s quite involved. We’ve been hanging in there for the last couple years,” Brown said.
The sheriff agreed. “Even with all the adversities they’re facing, they’re still holding the bar and getting things done.”
In other recent activity, the sheriff was pleased to recognize his new chief deputy, Andy Lowrie, who came on board following the retirement of Rickie Childers, the former chief deputy. Lowrie’s in his 29th year in law enforcement, with the bulk of that having been right here in Polk County.
As for the future, the sheriff said he has been thinking outside the box and that starting in January, his department will begin working with the criminal justice students at Livingston High School and will also begin a work program for students that includes a mock jail academy, although the students will have to be 18 before they are eligible for hire at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.