07-30 coleman-01

Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman

Prisoners in Texas county jails have nearly as much criminal justice training as some of the officers tasked with guarding them.

Of the nearly 23,000 corrections officers in Texas county jails, more than 3,200, or 14 percent, operate under temporary licenses – no training required, reports the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

Locally, roughly 25 percent of the corrections officers working in the Anderson County Jail are unlicensed.

Some Texas lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats alike – say a lack of fully trained officers is contributing to the rise of in-custody deaths.

Under a state law aimed at easing staff shortages in county jails, newly hired corrections officers may work a full year before completing the 120 training hours necessary to obtain their licenses. Meantime, such officers operate under temporary certifications.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D, Houston) told the Herald-Press Monday he plans to introduce legislation next session that would, among other things, speed up training requirements for county jail officers. Coleman has worked on bi-partisan reform legislation with state Rep. Bill Zedler (R, Arlington).

Zedler and Coleman were not successful in passing a bill, earlier this year, requiring corrections officers to complete training within 90 days of hire.

Statewide, county sheriffs, struggling to keep their ranks full, rallied against the plan.

“Sometimes, it takes a year,” Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Lauderback told the Herald-Press Monday. “Regionally, some counties are hard-pressed to hold even one academy class per year for training.”

Compromise legislation approved during this session, however, will prohibit unlicensed officers from holding supervisory positions – something that happened frequently before. It also will require counties to sign up newly hired officers for classes within 90 days of hire, though they still have one year to complete training.

Rural area like East Texas typically employ a greater number of untrained personnel.

Training for a license includes CPR and first aid, security, ethics, inmate supervision, correctional law, supervision of special needs inmates, and jail health care.

Some Texas lawmakers have linked the practice of temporary certifications to the rising number of in-custody jail deaths in county lock-ups statewide.

In the first half of this year, 57 inmates died in the custody of Texas county jails. If this trend continues, this year will be the deadliest yet for Texas jails, with 114 deaths.

Coleman was instrumental in passing the Sandra Bland Act of 2017, a bill aimed at protecting prisoners with mental illnesses.

Texas enacted the law, after the high-profile death in 2015 of Sandra Bland, 28, who was found dead in the Waller County jail, three days after her arrest following a routine traffic stop.

One of the last jailers to see Sandra Bland alive held a temporary certification.

“Poor and incomplete training,” Coleman told the Herald-Press, coupled with a “lack of seniority” due to historically low pay for jailers, contribute to the state's failure to curtail in-custody jail deaths.

In Jackson County, with a population of less than 15,000, Lauderback said his office typically hires officers in January, then sends them for training in summer.

“County jails are in the unique situation where they don't control their own funding and salaries,” he said.

Recently named to the 10-member House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, Coleman said this year's compromise legislation is the first step to a comprehensive jail reform initiative. He wants to ensure all Texas jails benefit from the reforms.

“We've had an impact now, and through the interim, we're going to put more thought into it,” he said. “It [jail reform] can't be solved with one bill in one day.”