Wednesday, June 10, 2009

DOJ: Harris County Jail fails to meet minimum constitutional standards

A new findings letter from the US Justice Department criticizing the Harris County Jail dramatically ups the ante regarding the overcrowded facility's continuing problems.

The letter from DOJ's Civil Rights Division hit all the high points, declaring straight-up that the jail in Houston "fails to provide detainees with adequate: (1) medical care; (2) mental health care; (3) protection from serious physical harm; and (4) protection from life safety hazards." DOJ said in many ways, the jail functions fairly well, but "in a number of critical areas, the Jail lacks necessary systems to ensure compliance with constitutional standards."

Unconstitutionally Poor Healthcare
According to the letter, "Because of crowding, administrative weaknesses, and resource limits, the Jail does not provide constitutionally adequate care to meet the serious medical needs of detainees with chronic illness." In particular:
We found specific deficiencies in the Jail's provision of chronic care and follow-up treatment. These deficiencies in themselves and when combined with problems in medical record-keeping and quality assurance ... are serious enough to place detainees at an unacceptable risk of death or injury.
The letter criticizes the jail (whose population is larger than more than half of US states' prison populations) for using the "sick call" system as the primary means of delivering care and said "generally accepted correctional medical standards" require them toto set up systems to identify and treat chronically ill inmates in a ongoing fashion. Several egregious, specific examples of preventable deaths stemming from a lack of chronic care, with names omitted, are detailed in the report.

Mental Healthcare Below Par
The same deficiencies seen with chronic care also plague the jail's mental health treatment systems, said DOJ. The jail fails to adequately assess mental health issues on the front end and fails to treat them in an ongoing fashion while prisoners are inside, providing insufficient resources, too limited an array of treatment options to jail staff, and inadequate measures to prevent suicides.

Inadequate Review, Unreliable Data on Use of Force
DOJ also said they have "serious concerns about use of force at the Jail," calling the agency's use of force policy "flawed," specifically for failing to list proscribed practices like hogtying and chokeholds, and also for generally nebulous language and a lack of a strong administrative review system to evaluate use of force complaints. The crux of the problem:
When supervisors review use of force incidents, they do not have ready access to important evidence. Instead, they appear to rely excessively on officer statements to determine what happened during an incident. ... [As a result,] use of force occurs at the Jail without adequate review, and Jail data regarding use of force levels cannot be considered reliable.
As with its other criticisms, the letter cites several on-point examples demonstrating these inadequacies, with DOJ opining that "These and other similar incidents suggest that staff use hazardous restraint and force techniques without appropriate guidance or sanction." (See the full document for more details.)

Whither TCJS?
DOJ said it was "concerning" that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards continually gave "waivers" to the Harris Jail in order to allow them house 2,000 more prisoners than the facility was designed to hold. Overcrowded conditions at the Harris Jail in and of themselves may not violate constitutional standards, said DOJ, and they acknowledged the Sheriff is taking steps (like housing some prisoners out of state) to alleviate the problem. But overcrowding exacerbates the jail's other constitutional deficiencies, contributes to sanitation and hygiene problems, and "reduces staff's ability to supervise detainees in a safe manner," say the feds. DOJ suggests that "additional jail staffing or more jail diversion programs could reduce the risk of detainees coming to harm in the facility."

One complaint I'd not heard before: The Jail does not maintain enough clothing or linen for the number of inmates housed there and "the laundry operation does not meet minimum sanitary standards." The same was true, they said, of the jail's barbershop.

Locals in Denial
This definitely turns up the heat on the Harris County Jail to rectify longstanding medical and staffing problems, though county officials are downplaying the findings in ways that seem not to appreciate the gravity of the concerns raised. County Judge Ed Emmett told the Houston Chronicle, “Actually, if you read the report, it is fairly positive ... It has some episodic events but it does not show a pattern of problems.”

But that's exactly false. The letter precisely alleged a pattern of problems and told the county DOJ would sue them if they aren't soon fixed. This drama is far from over, and I'm willing to bet Judge Emmett won't be the one getting the final say.

MORE: From AP and Off the Kuff, the Austin Contrarian and Houston's Clear Thinkers.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope they do get sued. Whether criminals or not, people placed in jails deserve some level of human dignity and if Harris county is not capable of it, then maybe the DOJ should take it over.

Anonymous said...

I think the new sheriff is giving it a higher priority. Thomas was leaving the place in bad shape to pus the new jail. Garcia thinks we'll need a new one too, but he'll work on keeping the existing one up to snuff. He's trying to take direct control over maintenance, which will give him more control over keeping it current.

Anonymous said...

MIght help if they would look at the issue from a different perspective. How about not putting so many into the facility in the first place? The new sheriff is scared of issuing citations for simple possession, for example, because of the perceived negative consequences he would face if an individual is arrested for a burglary while having a citation to appear in court for a drug offense. He's still thinking like a street cop who believes marijuana smokers commit crimes to support their supposed habit instead of recognizing "they are us" (My apologies to Walt Kelly and Pogo Possum). :~)

Anonymous said...

The new sheriff also, I suspect, dreams of a new jail. That, of course, brings the idea of "build it and they will come" to a whole, new level.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

DOJ actually didn't support a new jail. They advised to either hire more staff for the current one or use diversion programs more aggressively.

Informed Citizen said...

History Channle - the real story of Bonnie & Clyde - aired last week. Clyde's murderous rampage was motivated by 2 years in the Eastem Texas Prison. The worst in the Country. He vowed revenge and even attempted to free as many inmates there as he could. One he freed cut a deal with the STATE and arranged for the ambush in which they were executed. ----
Moral of the story; A Dungeon environment for offenders is of no benefit to society, or to public safety. Rather than a deterrent to offenses, it will become a catalyst for greater offenses.
------------
I have been in the Harris County Jail. It is a DUNGEON. A disgrace to a civilized society. Even more so for one with the resources of Harris County, of Texas, of our US of A. It did, however, motivate me to read Grits and take other action to expose the criminals that hide under a position of employment at public expense.
------------
As for a lawsuit. Well, it was done some 25 years ago. The Ruiz suit put all Texas Jails under Federal Court oversight. But Harris County Officials, and many others living off the Texas Taxpayers, simply scoffed at the law and the Federal Government. No real enforcement of the orders of the Court was ever made.

Boyness said...

In fairness, we threw Sheriff Tommy Thomas out of office last November and it was WAY over-due. Sheriff Garcia inherited a mess and has worked to make things better. This is a huge undertaking. The DOJ report is damning and it should be. Most of us would not house a dog in these buildings.

What we need in Harris County is some common sense. We have got to stop locking everyone up and use diversion programs and allow pre-trial defendants to post and make bond (this alone would make a huge difference).

gravyrug said...

How many of these criticisms can be leveled at Texas jails and prisons generally, rather than just Harris County? I have a friend who got out of State prison over a year ago, and is suffering from problems that were ignored while she was inside.

I know you've covered this extensively, Grits, and thanks for it. We as a state (and probably a country) need to have this information so we can get the situation changed.

Anonymous said...

This jail is non-compliant with state regs but remains open.

I suppose since this is a "big county" jail and not a "small county" jail, they won't ever be closed.

The arguement would be where would the inmates be housed.

I say do away with state oversight, save the taxpayers money by cutting these positions and let the feds deal with Texas county jails.

Anonymous said...

Grits...

Did the DOJ give any kind of timeline on their definition of "soon"? Or was it left open ended?

editor said...

Is Judge Emmett serious? Did he read past page 2 of the letter? If he would have read the whole thing, he would see that it says exactly the opposite of what he claims. I've been to several conferences with staff from the Harris County Jail who claim it to be a "restraint free jail." This statement and Judge Emmett's begs the question, "Do you really believe what you are saying, or do you think the recipients of those statements are so stupid to believe what you are saying?" Nonetheless, I hope Sheriff Garcia gets things in order soon.
stircrazyintexas.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

The new sheriff is filling medical administration positions with his non-medical cronies.

Anonymous said...

Surely the great saviour Sen. John Whitmore will step up and address this situation.

Boyness said...

Anonymous said...

The new sheriff is filling medical administration positions with his non-medical cronies.

6/10/2009 07:09:00 PM

NO, HE's NOT.

Anonymous said...

Surely the great saviour Sen. John Whitmore will step up and address this situation.

6/10/2009 07:23:00 PM

PROBABLY NOT. THIS IS A LOCAL, HARRIS COUNTY, PROBLEM AND THE TEXAS LEGISLATURE HAS LITTLE TO DO WITH IT. THE TEXAS COMMISSION ON JAIL STANDARDS IS TOOTHLESS SO IT REQUIRES THE DOJ TO ACTUALLY POLICE THE JAILS.

Anonymous said...

Please if you waiting for John Whitmire to step up the the plate and do something all of use will be great-grandparents before he puts it on his agenda. I've been trying for 5 years to get him to take a look at the Protech monitoring sysytem that is used for people on monitored probation/parole...I've sent reseach(from Protech's website) showing tha the State of Texas pays $2.90 for each monitor, weather research showing that the satellite used to track had been off course during certain days, and weather conditions (ask NASA), letters from people on the monitors that have had violations because the monitors don't work in their school buildings, their homes, their churches, sent letters when my son was in Harris County and was having 5 seizures a day because they didn't give him his medicine, even though I sent it with the police when he was arrested for a monitor violation, do we really expect this man to step up to the plate...I think not.

Here let's take a moment and look at the the financial figures...$100per day per prisoner X 11,000 prisoners...DUH

Why fix something that works perfectly....LOL

Anonymous said...

The prison systems in Texas, from its prestigious 120 year old world renowned prison prep school tyc right on up to its graduate programs in tdcj, they are all geared to on purpose, to mold the most anti social human being that is possible. Social sciences’ professionals have been working diligently for decades to prefect this program while deceiving the public as well as the very people implementing this societal disaster.
Clyde Barrow was not an alumni of what was the tyc of its day but nearly all of his accomplices’ were graduates of the Gatesville State School for Boys, where tyc’s draws its roots from.
Sheldon

Anonymous said...

"THE TEXAS COMMISSION ON JAIL STANDARDS IS TOOTHLESS SO IT REQUIRES THE DOJ TO ACTUALLY POLICE THE JAILS."

Please.........
Texas Administrative Code 297.8

(a) If the commission determines that the responsible officials receiving a notice of noncompliance or an administrative order fail to initiate corrective measures within the time prescribed, the commission may, by remedial order, delivered by certified mail, return receipt requested or by personal service to the responsible officials, declare that the facility in question or any portion thereof be closed, that further confinement of inmates or classifications of inmates in the noncomplying facility or any portion thereof be prohibited, that all or any number of the inmates then confined be transferred to and maintained in another designated facility, or any combination of such remedies.

Boyness said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"THE TEXAS COMMISSION ON JAIL STANDARDS IS TOOTHLESS SO IT REQUIRES THE DOJ TO ACTUALLY POLICE THE JAILS."

Please.........
Texas Administrative Code 297.8

(a) If the commission determines that the responsible officials receiving a notice of noncompliance or an administrative order fail to initiate corrective measures within the time prescribed, the commission may, by remedial order, delivered by certified mail, return receipt requested or by personal service to the responsible officials, declare that the facility in question or any portion thereof be closed, that further confinement of inmates or classifications of inmates in the noncomplying facility or any portion thereof be prohibited, that all or any number of the inmates then confined be transferred to and maintained in another designated facility, or any combination of such remedies.

6/11/2009 01:40:00 PM

WHEN HAS THIS AGENCY EVER ORDERED A JAIL CLOSED?

Anonymous said...

6/11/2009 01:40:00 PM

WHEN HAS THIS AGENCY EVER ORDERED A JAIL CLOSED?

As of May 2009, there are 36 jail that are non-compliant and there are 17 jails thare closed.

The report does not say in what year the last jail was closed.

Anonymous said...

To the more evolved observers of the human condition, nothing is as jolting to the senses as primitive cruelty. This is not because such cruelty is an affront to civilization; it is because such cruelty confirms that civilization is entirely absent in certain societies. It is this absence that jolts us.
Tunku Varadajan

http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/05/taliban-pakistan-flogging-islam-opinions-columnists-tunku-varadarajan.html

Boyness said...

Anonymous said...

6/11/2009 01:40:00 PM

WHEN HAS THIS AGENCY EVER ORDERED A JAIL CLOSED?

As of May 2009, there are 36 jail that are non-compliant and there are 17 jails thare closed.

The report does not say in what year the last jail was closed.

6/12/2009 07:46:00 AM

WHERE EXACTLY WOULD ONE LOCATE THIS INFORMATION ASSUMING IT IS PUBLIC RECORD?

Anonymous said...

I was having a discussion with several colleagues today over the debate centered around the legal fight over the detainee photos being made public.

I suggested that the written record of reported abuses were sufficient to call attention to the problem.

Some argued rather persuasively that words alone would not bring about the sufficient realization in the public view or more to the point, those photos are information and if that information exists it demands by its nature to be freely shared. (law librarians are a randy bunch)

After reading this post, I have no doubt that the more cynical in nature in my profession are right on target. People are literally dying in Harris County Jail. Parse it any way you want, but those are the facts. The access has been granted, the report made available and still there is no civil outrage.

What is left to ponder? I so wish the DOJ mandated that photos be taken; a photo record be kept. Maybe they do and that is another thing the federal government feels better kept to themselves.

I am bother by this. I am appalled. I am outraged. I do not understand how others are not so. I do not understand how this is made to be somehow acceptable. No, I do not understand this at all.

There might be a new sheriff in town but people knew about the old one. People knew and still sent more. People knew and did nothing for years.

Yes, I am appalled and I am outraged.

Anonymous said...

Boyness - Make friends with those librarians at the Texas State Law Library. Not only do they know where you can find the information that you seek, they will probably go a long way in helping you find it. Flattery usually gets you everywhere with the likes of us.

Not everything worth having can be found with a click of a mouse via google.