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.)
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.