In 2022, the number of people in jail in Texas reached an all-time high in the wake of legislation expanding the use of money bail. Much of this jail boom is taking place in the suburbs, where jail construction and expansion has kept pace with a rapidly growing resident population over the past decade. Economic growth and low unemployment should have resulted in lower incarceration across the state, yet Texas suburbs have instead chosen to maintain their already-high jail incarceration rates and invest massively in new jails.

This phenomenon is on display on the Gulf Coast in the eastern suburbs of Houston, where Chambers County officials have been trying to build a large new jail for more than a decade. Having twice failed to secure funding for the jail via a public vote, commissioners in Chambers County have now formed a public-private partnership with a developer to build the jail. In late August 2023, the commissioners chose to commit upwards of $308 million over the next 30 years to a jail and court complex.

This means that the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office, which already accounts for almost one-third of the county’s budget, will now encompass an even larger share of the county’s operational costs, potentially crowding out other needs. To make way for the new jail, commissioners plan to demolish a local library in Anahuac, the county seat. Even if the library is eventually rebuilt in another location, its temporary absence will deprive the already underserved neighborhood of a range of programming—including monthly book clubs, movie showings, and craft sessions—that provide entertainment, education, and a chance to connect with others.

The burden of a new and expanded jail goes far beyond the budget. The harms also include job and housing loss, worse mental health outcomes, and a higher risk of drug overdose for people detained in the jail. Far too often, people are in jail because they are unable to afford the bail set in their case, whereas someone with financial means and the same charge would be able to secure their release and prepare for their case from home. In the last year, an average of 90 percent of people incarcerated in the Chambers County Jail were not yet convicted. The jail detained its highest number of people ever, 168 people, in October 2022. Unaffordable money bail results in the poor being disproportionately criminalized and burdened with the consequences of incarceration. Local officials have not factored these real, human costs into their decision.

An unquestioned assumption

Chambers County officials argue that the new jail, which would double the county’s current capacity to incarcerate, is necessary to deal with a growing resident population. The county has grown dramatically in the last several decades, with most of this development concentrated in the western part of the county, which is the site of significant petrochemical production, large industrial parks, and a growing “green” plastics sector. In contrast, local residents describe the eastern part of the county, where Anahuac is located, as more rural and agricultural. In 2021, one-fifth of Anahuac families were living below the poverty level, and households in this area had the lowest median income in the county, with the median income of Black households only about a third of white households.

Photo by Bea Halbach-Singh
Compared to the western part of the county, East Chambers County is home to more agricultural employment including ranching, rice, and soybean production.

Most of the locals we spoke to about the jail project assumed that violent crime is increasing and will continue to do so, due to the explosive population growth over the last few decades and the influx of people who regularly travel into and through Chambers County via I-10, the major interstate highway running between Houston and New Orleans. Sheriff Hawthorne and other county officials insist that these factors will automatically result in a need to jail more people.

County officials’ emphasis on crime conceals how local policies like slow courts, unaffordable bail, and lack of pretrial release create jail crowding. In 2017, a report by Griffith Moseley Johnson & Associates (GMJ), a consulting firm hired by the county—while reinforcing a crowding problem—found “no clear correlation” between the county’s resident population, the number of serious crimes, and the number of people held in the local jail population.[]Griffith Moseley Johnson & Associates, Inc. “A Report to the Commissioners Court and Sheriff of Chambers County, Texas on the Chambers County Jail,” March 2017, in Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting - April 11, 2017,” Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal, “Agenda Packet,”, 45-71, 53. (Note: this is page 8 of the original report.) According to the authors’ analysis of local police statistics in Chambers County reported to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the number of serious violent crimes in the county did not increase between 2016 and 2021, and actually dipped in-between those years. Instead, the report emphasized the role that local practices and policies have on incarceration, noting that the percentage of people held pretrial in Chambers County was higher on average than in peer counties and recommended that the county implement a formal pretrial release process and expedited court procedures to reduce the number of people held in the jail.

Local officials are aware of how their own decisions contribute to high local incarceration. Earlier this year, the Chambers County judge distinguished the county’s more punitive criminal legal system from that of Houston and surrounding Harris County, where, beginning in 2017, bail reform led to more people charged with low-level offenses being released pretrial without posting bail. “Our judges do set high bonds,” said County Judge Jimmy Sylvia, “We’re not Harris County.” Similarly, when the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) talked with Captain Todd Harris, Chambers County’s jail administrator, in April 2023, he suggested that local law enforcement agencies, when given a choice, opt to bring people they arrest to Chambers County, rather than Harris County, because "they spend a lot less time in jail [in Harris County]." Although Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Republican lawmakers have claimed the Harris County reforms led to the release of people who are a public safety risk into the community, the independent monitor charged with overseeing the implementation of the reforms found they produced no increase in new offenses by people who were released. The monitor also found that the overall number of misdemeanor cases and the share of misdemeanor cases involving homeless persons declined noticeably in the years following the reforms.

It’s clear that Chambers County could do much more to reduce the number of people in jail. As early as 2016, a Texas Commission on Jail Standards analysis urged the county to continue to use and explore additional alternatives to incarceration, including forms of pretrial diversion that would result in more people being released on their own recognizance.[]Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), “Facility Needs Analysis,” February 23, 2016, obtained via records request from TCJS, on file at Vera. Despite some incremental efforts to expedite pretrial release, 87 percent of the people in the Chambers County jail were there waiting for their day in court as of July 2023.[]Texas Commission on Jail Standards, “Current Population Reports,” database (Austin, TX: Texas Commission on Jail Standards, July 2023), (select: County Jail Population, note: this will automatically download an .xlsx file.), Note: the percent of the jail population held pretrial is calculated as the sum of the “pretrial felons,” “pretrial misd.,” “bench warrants,” and “SJF pretrial” categories divided by the reported jail population.

Women’s incarceration as justification

Since the new jail was first proposed, Chambers County officials have used an increase in the number of incarcerated women as justification for a new facility. In 2015, Sheriff Brian Hawthorne told county commissioners that the county was “having an overcrowding problem in the jail, particularly with female inmates.” Two years later, GMJ reinforced this narrative. The consultants’ report described how, consistent with national trends, Chambers County was incarcerating more and more women—and that capacity to detain women is where “space limitations [in the jail] have become most evident.”[]Griffith Moseley Johnson & Associates, Inc. “A Report to the Commissioners Court and Sheriff of Chambers County, Texas on the Chambers County Jail,” March 2017, in Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting - April 11, 2017,” Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal, “Agenda Packet,”, 45-71, 51. (Note: this is page 6 of the original report.) In 2019, Hawthorne reiterated to news media that, although the existing jail was well-maintained, the county had an immediate need for more capacity. At the time, the county was detaining an average of 25 to 30 women on any given day, yet had only 12 beds in the women’s unit.

Although women’s incarceration was on the rise across the country prior to 2020, pandemic-era changes have disrupted these trends. From 2019 to 2020, the national jail incarceration rate for women declined by 37 percent, dropping at a faster pace than that of men. In Chambers, the rate at which law enforcement book women into jail has trended downward since the early 2000s. In 2021, the number of women booked into jail was the lowest it had been in more than two decades.

The question of how to respond to this relatively small number of incarcerated women is complicated by state regulations. Texas jails operate under a strict gender binary: jails must classify people as either male or female (regardless of how they may self-identify) and ensure strict “sight and sound” separation in the facility. The effect of this rule is that even though there may be space in the jail, detaining even one additional woman could require the jail to empty an entire unit to avoid holding women alongside men.

To avoid this scenario, Chambers County has been sending women from its jail—sometimes the majority of local incarcerated women—to jails in other counties.[]Griffith Moseley Johnson & Associates, Inc. “A Report to the Commissioners Court and Sheriff of Chambers County, Texas on the Chambers County Jail,” March 2017, in Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting - April 11, 2017,” Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal, “Agenda Packet,”, 45-71, 51. (Note: this is page 6 of the original report.) They have used jails in nearly every surrounding county, some more than an hour’s drive away. The average number of women jailed in other counties in recent years, Harris told Vera, has varied between 12 and 20 at any given time.

Local officials have used the costs associated with imprisoning people in surrounding counties to argue for a new jail since at least 2016.[]Wade Thibodeaux, “Commissioners Vote to Put $85 Million Bond on November Ballot,” The Hometown Press, August 24, 2016, 1, 7, However, these same costs are what often incentivize law enforcement officials to reduce incarceration. For example, in April 2017, a Chambers County program ensuring timely appointment of a public defender reduced the number of people in jail and brought the annual cost of jailing people in other counties down by $124,400.[]Chap B. Cain, III, Proposal to Reduce Costs to House Inmates Out of County, July 21, 2017, Letter from the 253rd District Court Judge to the Chambers County Commissioners Court, in Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting - August 8, 2017,” Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal, “Agenda Packet,”, 59–61. In 2018, the district attorney’s office also began holding probable cause dockets to release people from jail for whom there was insufficient basis for arrest. That year, the DA’s office announced that it was able to “dramatically decrease the jail population which has resulted in a savings for the County in housing and transporting inmates.”[]Email from Eric C. Carcerano, Assistant District Attorney, to Lauren Van Deventer, Human Resources Director, re: “Agenda Item for 1/23/18,” January 12, 2018, in Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting – February 14, 2017,” Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal, “Agenda Packet,”, 34. (Note: the agenda will load first. Please click “Agenda Packet” in the left side menu.)

If a larger jail is built, courts and the DA will no longer have this financial incentive to reduce the number of people in jail. Instead, the proposed jail complex will provide the infrastructural capacity to accommodate more punitive policies—such as those proposed in 2023 in Texas Senate Bill 1318 and Senate Joint Resolution 44—that would expand the use of mandatory money bail and preventative detention without bail, likely increasing the number of people detained pretrial statewide.

A limited discussion

As the jail project has gained momentum, Chambers County officials have focused the narrative on complicated discussions around jail regulations and population growth—obscuring the fact that the project originated from a debate about where to incarcerate roughly two dozen women.

A new jail is not the only way to address this. The county could also release more people from jail, beginning with those held pretrial, and invest in more community-based resources that would help reduce contact with law enforcement for issues related to poverty. When asked about the main factors resulting in women being sent to jail, Harris acknowledged that “most of it’s drug-related and mental illness,” and highlighted a need for community-based treatment, housing, and alternatives to incarceration for people dealing with substance use disorder and mental illness.

The needs of these residents are markedly absent from discussions about the county’s jail. By focusing on questions such as where to build the jail, how to acquire property for the site, and how it should be designed and financed, the county commissioners have so far avoided a broader discussion about whether a new jail is the best way to holistically meet the needs of a growing community.

Despite this limited framework for discussion, concerns from residents have thwarted several bond elections that would have secured debt financing for the new facility.[]Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting – February 14, 2017,” in Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal, Agenda Packet,, 16–17, 32–48, 55; Sue Hawthorne, “Some Property Owners Not Happy with County’s Plans for New Jail Facility,” The Progress, February 1, 2017, 1, 10A,; and Mayes Middleton, “While You Weren’t Looking Your County Officials Took on over $57k in Debt and Don’t You Want to Vote on It!” The Progress, January 18, 2017, 7A, The county responded to these concerns by hiring a series of consultants—some multiple times—to provide alternate financing and design options. Vera’s analysis concludes that the county has paid at least $7 million in consulting fees for the jail project since 2015.

Chambers county graph
Source: Based on Vera analysis of contracts and agenda packets from commissioners court meetings from 2015 to April 2023, on file with the authors.

An expensive solution to a manufactured crisis

With the debate about the jail still underway, the county has pursued another short-term fix to its limited jail space for women. In 2021, local officials contracted with the same architecture firm that had already provided several sets of designs for the jail complex to repurpose what county tax records reveal to be a former children’s gymnastics and cheer building into a temporary 48-bed women’s jail. This converted structure will not have visitation or exercise areas and is expected to increase the county’s total capacity for women’s detention to 60 beds—double what Hawthorne claimed to need in 2019.

In a conversation with Vera researchers, Harris cast doubt on whether the temporary structure was truly necessary, describing the count of women in jail as dropping so low at certain points as to render the temporary women’s dorm useless. “If that thing was open . . . I wouldn’t have 20 people to put over there,” he said.

Although the county describes the facility as temporary, it is worth noting that a 1994 addition to the Chambers County Jail was also intended to be temporary but is still in operation today.[]Griffith Moseley Johnson & Associates, Inc. “A Report to the Commissioners Court and Sheriff of Chambers County, Texas on the Chambers County Jail,” March 2017, in Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting - April 11, 2017,” Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal, “Agenda Packet,”, 45-71, 47. (Note: this is page 2 of the original report.)

County officials have already used the temporary facility to manufacture a sense of urgency for a new, permanent jail structure. Under Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) regulations, Harris said, a temporary facility can only be used for three years, after which the county is required to have a long-term solution. He acknowledged that other counties could solve this problem by reducing the number of people in jail, but repeatedly returned to a new jail as the sole option in Chambers County. “When you open up a [temporary] facility, the clock is ticking, which is a pretty good rule to have,” he said. “If not, people would just say, ‘Depopulate [the old jail].’”

This version of events fails to acknowledge that, when deciding to build the temporary jail facility, county officials were aware of its requisite short window of operation, even as they dictated a new jail as the resolution to the problem. This allows county officials to mischaracterize the construction of the new jail as being driven by state regulations, rather than as a direct result of the county’s decisions. The misrepresentation has direct effects on local discourse, in which the TCJS mandate is used to justify expedited and undemocratic decisions.

After two failed attempts at the bond election process typically used to fund jail construction, Chambers commissioners are turning to another method—one that allows them to avoid a public vote. Commissioners are planning to use a lease revenue bond, in which a private developer issues a bond to fund the construction of the jail and then leases the facility back to the county to generate revenue. Such deals are increasingly used by governments unable to get such investments approved via a public election process. Instead of a vote, the county is planning on “educating the public,” as one county commissioner phrased it, after the decision has been made.[]Direct quote from County Commissioner Ryan Dagley, in public comments debating a bond election versus P3 arrangement for the jail. Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting - February 14, 2023,” video, Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal, “Meeting Media,”, 3:11:40–3:13:00.

The commissioners claim that this option will allow the county to build the facility quickly and without a tax increase. Contrary to the second claim, the county will have to raise its property tax rate for maintenance and operations—by the maximum amount allowed without voter approval—for the next five years to pay the private developer leasing out the jail. In other words, taxpayers will still be responsible for payments—amounting to $10 million annually for the next 30 years.[]James Gilly, Jr., “Justice Center Complex & Library Improvement – P3 Financing,” U.S. Capital Advisors, LLC, March 23, 2023, 22-24, in Commissioners Court of Chambers County, Texas, “Regular Meeting – March 28, 2023,” Chambers County, TX – Agendas & Minutes portal,

Across Texas, suburbs like Chambers County are suffering the consequences of a punitive criminal legal system that has led to record-high numbers of people in jail, often for issues related to substance use, mental illness, and poverty. Suburban counties can and should release people from jail before trial, provide lawyers at court appearances, and invest in supportive services for people accused of criminal offenses and drug possession. Suburban officials can reduce the harms of incarceration in their communities by prioritizing investments that meet people’s economic and health needs and reducing the number of people in jail. Chambers County, however, has treated the need to build a bigger jail as a foregone conclusion, largely ignoring other options. Tearing down public libraries to build new jails for women is not a solution. Whether other Texas suburbs will follow in Chambers’ footsteps—or opt to plan for a different sort of future—remains to be seen.