Monday, November 23, 2015

Dead in Jail: A Texas Story

When Sandra Bland died this summer in the Waller County Jail, generating international outrage at her unnecessary arrest and the failures of jailers to monitor properly for suicide, the main thing that surprised Grits was that the media and public paid attention, for once. After all, if you watch the local press, folks die needlessly all the time in Texas jails. For example, just recently I've noticed these headlines:
And then there's this case in Waco where three jailers at a privately run county facility have been charged with evidence tampering after they changed records to make it appear they'd conducted suicide checks which had never been performed.  Reported the Waco Tribune-Herald (Nov. 13):
Three correctional officers at the Jack Harwell Detention Center were arrested Thursday after allegedly changing documents to make it appear they conducted headcounts following the investigation of a suicide that occurred in the jail.
Michael Crittenden, 24; Milton Walker, 33; and Christopher Simpson, 24, were each arrested on a charge of tampering with government documents, legal documents filed in the case show.
All three are employees of LaSalle Corrections, which operates the Harwell Center.

Surveillance video showed that Crittenden, Walker and Simpson all lied about conducting headcounts in N-Wing in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, according to affidavits filed in the case.
So, if you watch, folks are dying in Texas' jails under questionable circumstances with regularity and for the most part, it seldom makes more than a blip on the local news.

By contrast, on Sunday, the Houston Chronicle published an investigative feature detailing deaths at the states largest county jail (and, for that matter, its largest mental health facility), many of which may be attributed to inadequate health care:
The Department of Justice targeted inadequate medical care at the jail in a 2009 report, finding that poor care and failures by jail medical staff to treat chronic conditions, including diabetes, tuberculosis and mental illness, had been factors in 20 deaths.

Six years later, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found that serious issues remain related to inmate care. Despite reforms in staffing and procedures that have improved medical care in key areas, the Justice Department continues to focus on shortfalls in mental health treatment and on jailers' use of force against disruptive prisoners, according to John Odam, general counsel for the Harris County attorney.
Records show at least 75 inmates have died in jail custody since the Justice Department report, about three-quarters of whom were awaiting adjudication. The number of deaths decreased about 11 percent during [former Sheriff Adrian] Garcia's administration compared to the last five years under Garcia's predecessor, Tommy Thomas.

Most of the deaths since 2009 were attributed to natural causes. Ten died of hepatitis B or C. Ten were suicides. Eight had HIV or AIDS. Five died from the deadly "superbug" staph infection MRSA. Three were ruled homicides.

The Chronicle identified at least 19 cases in which inmates died of illnesses that were either treatable or preventable, or in which delays in care, or staff misconduct, could have played a role in their deaths.
Over the past nine months, the Chronicle also reviewed more than 1,000 disciplinary reports provided by the Sheriff's Office and found 35 failures to complete cell checks, sometimes for inmates in solitary confinement. Additionally, jailers were disciplined more than 120 times for misconduct involving abuse of authority or misuse of force since 2009, including 13 instances in which jailers failed to seek medical attention for inmates.
Tuberculosis, in particular, is a chronic problem:
"For sure I wouldn't want to be in that jail, because I have major concerns about how they are doing TB skin tests," said professor Edward A. Graviss, director of the molecular tuberculosis laboratory at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute. "It's like being in a Third World country; you have to assume everyone is infected with TB. I would screen them a little bit differently, but again, it's your tax dollars at work. Do you screen them faster, or do you put fewer people in jail?"
Deaths at smaller jails may be treated as isolated incidents, though that's really a misnomer when the same things happen at jail after state-regulated jail. But in enormous Harris County, the high volume makes patterns more easily identifiable.

The Chronicle reported that, in January, the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee will take a deeper dive into some of these issues in an interim hearing. So these topics will get their turn in the sun next year, and likely at the 85th Legislature in 2017.

RELATED: Dozens of inmates die in Texas jails each year.

1 comment:

Diana Claitor said...

Good points. The amount of attention and awareness generated by Sandra Bland's death has stunned us at Texas Jail Project as well—especially since we had long been speaking out about how many young people were being "jailed to death" in county jails. At least the tragedy of her death is opening some eyes, changing some attitudes and even instigating overdue reforms. The excellent Chron article on Harris County Jail reveals exactly how bad the medical neglect is. Nowadays, we are hearing a rapidly increasing number of pleas for help coming from families of those in Harris County Jail (HCSO), especially since, under the new sheriff, nobody is responding to the online forms about Inmate Medical Care: …. Under Sheriff Garcia, after he hired Carl Griffith and they instituted that form, we saw immediate check ups on sick inmates after families used the form to report problems.