Norman Hicks, a retired butcher, had been in the Harris County Jail about 10 days when other inmates pleaded with jailers to have him transferred to the mental health unit.
Hicks, 72, had been placed in general population for violating probation in a family violence case even though intake workers determined he suffered from a combination of severe mental problems: bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The inmates worried Hicks might be killed by others he annoyed, according to a federal lawsuit filed by Hicks' children.
Instead, Hicks died after being punched by a jail guard involved in 11 previous use-of-force incidents. The guard hit Hicks with a closed fist, breaking bones in his face. He fell and hit his head, and the guard left him bleeding on the floor of an interview room. The Harris County medical examiner ruled the 2011 death a homicide.
What happened to Hicks in one of the nation's largest county correctional facilities underscored its most glaring weaknesses.
He did not receive the care he needed in what sheriff's officials describe as the county's largest de facto mental health institution.Grits readers will recall, as the paper recounted, that "In June 2009, the Justice Department concluded after its own yearlong investigation that inmates' constitutional protections had been violated by excessive violence and by substandard medical care that led to an 'alarming' number of prisoner deaths. The Justice Department has taken no public action since then despite what records show are similar instances of unreported beatings, inmate deaths and medical neglect."
He found himself trapped in a violent milieu riven by thousands of fights each year.
He was struck by a guard who failed to seek medical care or report the incident.
Over the past nine months, the Houston Chronicle has reviewed more than 1,000 disciplinary reports provided by the Harris County Sheriff's Office. Nearly half of those internal affairs investigations from 2010 through May 2015 resulted in discipline against jail staff who often brutalize inmates and attempt to cover up wrongdoing but rarely lose their jobs. Court records show jailers seldom faced criminal charges even in cases where they used excessive force.
The authors document how "the jail has become more violent in recent years, with fights, assaults and attacks on staff escalating." To quantify that: "Fights among inmates break out an average of 11 times a day. Assaults between inmates are reported about four times daily. Inmates assault staff about once each day. And guards report using force against inmates almost daily, according to official jail statistics. But what often goes unreported is the use of excessive force against inmates." Yikes! Here are a few more of their significant findings:
Harris County jailers were disciplined more than 120 times for misconduct involving abuse of authority or misuse of force, including beating, kicking and choking inmates. At least 15 were handcuffed at the time. In 84 of those 120 cases, jailers or supervisors failed to file required reports, lied or falsified documents. Stephen LaBoy, 25, was beaten by six jailers in his cell after flashing a mirror at a guard station. Drissa Pickens, 28, was assaulted by an accused murderer after a jailer unlocked a cell door and allowed the attack.Grits was also pleased to see them link the issue to punitive bail policies by local judges, citing critics who believe: "jail violence and chronic overcrowding are symptoms of the deeper problem of local judges' strict bond practices. Few accused offenders get released unless they can pay a non-refundable 10 percent commission charged by a Harris County-approved bondsman - a group that collectively makes millions from the county's tough lockup policies."
At least 70 inmates have died in custody since 2009. Three, including Hicks, died after guards used force. Other elderly or ill inmates were unable to make bond and died while awaiting trial. Latoshia Clark, 36, died pre-trial, of AIDS, after six weeks in jail for drug possession. Ten who died committed suicide, including Alex Guzman, 28, who hanged himself while two jailers ate a Domino's pizza and missed required cell checks. Guzman's case was among 35 documented instances where jailers skipped required cell checks, or faked records to hide skipping them.
Most jailers disciplined for abuse of authority or unnecessary force received only short suspensions. Since 2010, 33 of those jailers were fired for use of excessive force, unprofessional conduct, neglect of duties and lying or falsifying reports. Criminal charges were pursued against guards in only six of those cases. Jailer Brandon Whitaker grabbed inmate Tommy Maiden around the throat during a shouting match and squeezed so hard that he left bruises in the shape of handprints, jail photos show. Whitaker got a five-day suspension without being charged.
Dozens of jail employees were disciplined after they fraternized or had sex with inmates, brought in contraband or concealed relationships with prisoners and gang members. A training academy was disbanded and guards as young as 18 until recently completed only online courses as a cost-cutting measure. Former Deputy Tony G. Richards was prosecuted for having sex with an inmate in the jail laundry. His lawyer declined comment.
The Sheriff can't influence local judges' bond policies which keep the jail stuffed to the gills. Even so, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who resigned his post to run for Houston mayor, must feel as though the Houston Chronicle has signed on to perform Sylvester Turner's opposition research. That's not the case, the paper began investigating the jail in earnest after a particularly terrible incident unrelated to the campaign. Still, it's hard to imagine a more damaging critique of Garcia's tenure as Sheriff than that laid out in the Houston paper this week. All this happened on his watch.
These reporters' research methodologies could be replicated at other Texas county jails, btw, so reporters in other jurisdictions should take notice and follow Hassan and Pinkerton's model. This is an excellent example of the continued value of old-school, paper-trail journalism.