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Harlingen Changes Way it Runs its Jail

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Posted: Dec 6, 2012 6:30 PM

Updated: Dec 7, 2012 12:51 AM

HARLINGEN - The city of Harlingen is making changes in the way it runs its jail.

The city had taken advantage of a loophole to operate the jail without certain safety standards. The jail did not have showers or a kitchen. Still that didn't stop judges from locking up people there for up to 10 days.

The questionable conditions led to a lawsuit, and eventual changes.

Harlingen Police Chief Tom Whitten said the changes are not a result of the lawsuit.

"Even though it's a temporary holding facility... we put some dangerous people in here ... sometimes extremely aggressive people," Harlingen Police Sgt. Dave Osborne said.

Osborne took a CHANNEL 5 NEWS crew on a tour of the jail.

"We don't keep people here very long," Osborne said.

"They get to see a judge ... work out the payment arrangements, anything they need to do. If they are here for a class B misdemeanor or above, then they are transferred to Cameron County (jail) if they don't make bond that same day," Osborne said.

A previous visit by CHANNEL 5 NEWS raised questions about inmate care at the jail.

In 2010, CHANNEL 5 NEWS interviewed a woman whose diabetic sister spent eight consecutive days in the jail.

"She's got kids and she's sick with diabetes ... it's not good for her to be in there," Norma de la Cruz said in 2010.

In 2011 two ex-inmates sued the city claiming they ended up in the hospital because of the conditions at the jail. That lawsuit was recently settled.

Osborne said no one is denied health care.

"If someone expresses a medical concern to us, we either transport the person to the hospital ourselves or we actually call EMS to the facility here and have them evaluated," Osborne said.

He said inmates also get their prescribed medicines.

"They have to have their name on the bottle. It can't just be a plastic baggy with five pills in it," Osborne said.

The police department also has changed the booking process.

"Any time the prisoner is brought to the booking room, a supervisor is to talk to the inmate that is being arrested and speak with them about the charge," he said.

The supervisor also checks the inmate for injuries.

"On top of that, we ask the persons being brought into custody how the officer treats (them)," Osborne said.

"Many of them are surprised we are asking that question, but that's part of one of the best practices that we follow," he said.

City jails in Texas do not have to meet set safety standards. Still Harlingen officials decided to start following guidelines established by a state and a national organization.

"Even though it is a jail facility, it's still about customer service. It's about treating people with dignity and respect," Osborne said.

The changes at the jail are part of an overhaul at the police department, Osborne said. The department also is trying to become accredited by a national group called CALEA.

"Overall, I think CALEA is bringing in a higher level of customer service, service to the citizens. It's allowing the officers to understand some of the standards we have always imposed at Harlingen PD," Osborne said.

"We have some new standards in place to expand our service, so people know they can depend on this police department whenever they need them," Osborne said.

Osborne said the overhaul is affecting everything from how officers answer calls to how prisoners are processed.

The department will find out next year if it gets certified by CALEA.

Topics: harlingen, jail, calea, dave osbourne, tom whitten

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