By Crystal Townsend
Last week, Sheriff Gonzalez and the Serving the Incarcerated and Recently Released Partnership of Greater Houston (SIRR) held a round-table conversation about issues impacting people released from Harris County Jail (HCJ). State identification, reinstating public benefits, and receiving medication upon release were among the topics discussed. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office team was prepared with solutions or, at least, a willingness to work through them in the future with the help of community partners.
Texas House Bill 337 is a new policy that allows certain public benefits, including medical assistance benefits to be suspended instead of terminated for individuals being released from the county jail. Mona Lisa Jiles, Deputy Director of the Mental Health Services at the Harris Center, offered that the jail wants to make this process more efficient for everyone involved. They are working with the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to incorporate an electronic method of reinstating benefits for eligible releasees by the end of the year.
When it comes to implementing a process to ensure that persons are released with photo identification from the jail, Sheriff Gonzalez is willing to do what it takes to make this happen. This is a service that is already extended to the city’s homeless community by the Houston Police Department Mental Health Division Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) team. He understands the need to obtain ID for employment and housing–all of which help people access opportunities that are likely to keep them out of jail to begin with.
Prescribing medication refills before release and integrating treatment for HIV with other chronic diseases throughout the correctional system can increase better health outcomes but addressing this will take time. Sheriff Gonzalez will be working with his team and health care service providers in the community to better understand what is needed and how this can work. Houston is a city full of resources, so SIRR will be working with END HIV Houston and other community partners to take inventory of all the resources available to the incarcerated or recently released and convening another round-table to figure out how they all can work together.
“Usually the sheriff is concerned with locking folks up. I’ve never seen a sheriff actually care about the people coming out of Harris County [Jail],” said Tana Pradia. Pradia is a part of the END HIV Houston Criminal Justice Work Group. She remembers how things were for her when she was once incarcerated and uses her experiences to advocate for women who are where she once was. Her unique perspective is one that Sheriff Gonzalez finds valuable.
“The best day to plant a tree may have been ten years ago, but the second-best day to plant that tree is today and our families will reap the benefits for the next 20 years,” says Sheriff Gonzalez. He uses this reflection to assure people that change is taking place in Harris County Jail (HCJ), but it doesn’t happen overnight.