Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Glimpses of the Harris County Jail's dark underbelly

Several remarkable Houston Chronicle articles over the last month about problems at the HPD and Harris County jails develop some particularly unfortunate themes, and demonstrated some impressive team reporting chops:

Calls for training, better cell checks follow Harris County jail suicides (Dec. 1)

Wrote St. John Barned-Smith, "[I]n thousands of pages of autopsy reports and internal disciplinary reports, the Chronicle found 35 instances in which jailers skipped required cell checks or faked records to hide skipping them, a pattern that experts called a serious problem at county jails statewide."

The union says "the jail has never been properly staffed because both county and state leaders don't provide adequate funding. 'We just don't have enough manpower for the number of beds we have in the jail.'"

"Statewide, 154 inmates have killed themselves in county jails since Sept. 1, 2009. Suicides in county jails recently hit a five- year high: 33, up from 22 five years ago. The spike has come even as state officials have tried to shrink populations. (The total excludes municipal jails, which the state does not regulate.)"

The article also included a link to a a consultant's report on suicide prevention at the Harris County jail.

HPD jailer gets year of probation and week in jail for assault case (Dec. 15)

After an inmate allegedly spit at him, a civilian HPD jailer "attacked a mentally ill inmate, hitting him multiple times in a padded cell at the Houston Police Department's Central Jail," according to the Harris County DA, which resulted in a conviction on misdemeanor assault charges. Further, said the DA, "video surveillance helped authorities identify discrepancies" in the jailer's account of events.

"'This case illustrates the importance of having a video when complaints are made against law enforcement officials,' Julian Ramirez, chief of the District Attorney's Office Civil Rights Division, said in the release. 'We could not have proven this particular case without the video to disprove the justification given by the jailer.'"

Inmate's claims of jailer abuse fall on deaf ears (Dec. 22)

This story by Anita Hassan and James Pinkerton opened:
William Curtis Evans is serving three years in a Texas state prison for assaulting a detention officer in the Harris County Jail named Larry Poag.

Exactly what happened when Poag fingerprinted Evans for a bicycle theft charge in March 2014 remains in dispute.

Poag claimed Evans, handcuffed and shackled, bit him on the forearm. The 67-year-old jailer later admitted hitting Evans in the face to stop the attack, disciplinary reports state.
Evans denied biting Poag and claimed the jailer assaulted him and bent his finger back so far that it broke.

But Evans would be sentenced to prison before anyone at the Harris County Sheriff's Office investigated his complaint, learning the hard way that there were few safeguards for inmates who claim to have been assaulted by guards.

The Chronicle found eight cases in which inmates were choked, punched or kicked by detention officers and then ended up facing felony charges for alleged crimes against staff members, even though jailers were later disciplined for misconduct in connection with the same incidents - either for using excessive force or failing to report the incidents. Three of the eight, including Evans, were convicted and went to prison.

The Sheriff's Office does not routinely inform prosecutors of internal investigations into jailer's actions that are directly connected to criminal allegations against an inmate, even when disciplinary action is issued against jail staff that is related to those charges, a sheriff's spokesman confirmed in an email.
Inmates accused, charged despite workers own misconduct (Dec. 22)

Another one from Anita Hassan, summarized in this passage:
a Houston Chronicle investigation has found misuse of force by staff against inmates is prevalent and hard to prove, especially when jail staff file charges against inmates in altercations during which their own actions have been called into question.

Between 2009 and May of this year, the Harris County Sheriff's office has pursued charges more than 900 times against inmates for harassment, assault and other crimes against public servants stemming from incidents within the jail, according to court records.

With the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division continuing its review of excessive force by jail staff and pursuing an "ongoing law enforcement proceeding" in the jail, the Chronicle found that jail staff members have been disciplined in more than 120 incidents for misuse of force and other abuses of authority since 2009, records show.

Several of those disciplined have been involved in dozens of inmate prosecutions.
Tough bail policies punish the poor and the sick, critics say (Dec. 26)

This story by James Pinkerton and Lauren Caruba buried the lede, which should have been that "Fifty-five inmates died in the [Harris County] jail while awaiting adjudication since 2009. Eight were too ill to appear at initial bail hearings."

We also get this description of bail hearings in Houston, where it should be noted that indigent defendants are not represented by counsel: "Magistrates don't actually meet defendants, who are jailed across the street. Instead, faces appear on a screen. Few questions are asked. Some hearings last less than a minute."

County pretrial services employees interview most defendants, but "It's unclear whether magistrates review responses." "In recent hearings," reported Pinkerton and Caruba, "getting through the docket fast seemed to take precedence."

* * *

In summary, if you're too poor to post bond in Houston, your bail hearing will be a joke, with no lawyer to represent or speak up for you. You might get sick in jail or be beaten by a guard then convicted of a felony for assaulting him. Even if you're innocent. And if despair overtakes you and you attempt suicide, maybe no one will be there to stop you; perhaps they'll even falsify records after the fact to cover up their negligence.

That won't be everyone's experience, but these stories show it's been some people's. The Harris County Jail is so large that, among US states, it would rank as a mid-sized prison system. So when there are problems, they tend to scale up.

Houston voters sent a pretty strong message recently by failing to give former Sheriff Adrian Garcia a spot in the runoff for Mayor in a race which, at one time, some people thought was his to lose. IMO his poor showing stemmed largely from the public's recognition of problems at the Harris County Jail on his watch, some of the worst of which are cataloged in the stories above.

Perhaps that bodes well for finding solutions: If voters are going to punish politicians for these problems, maybe it will create some urgency for remaining Harris County pols with responsibility over the jail.

8 comments:

Jason Truitt said...

I wish you were right about Garcia, but Houstonians care little about the jail and Garcia can't really win anything without a bigger name like Obama on the ticket so he could ride their coat tails. When Turner announced, Garcia was done. Turner's base and work with the party were too much for Garcia, who basically campaigned on Twitter and his safe enclaves. Even then, Mayor Parker's handling nod HERO almost lost it for Turner, too, making a city that was a lock for a D almost a win for an R.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

There were sure a lot of people predicting a Garcia-Turner runoff if that's the case, Jason. Harris voters rejected jail bonds a few years ago and the jail was the main negative on Garcia in the press. So my sense is it's an issue with a small but significant number of folks who understand and vote on jail issues. With 20/20 hindsight, maybe Garcia never had a chance. But that wasn't the meme just a few months ago before his campaign tanked in the homestretch.

Anonymous said...

- Cameras need to be installed in all prisons. Some prisons have them, but they coveniently "malfunction" at crucial times.
- An electronic database of offending guards needs to be established so that their misdeeds are documented and they can be fired or can be criminally prosecuted.
Cameras are both a deterrent to guards' crimes and a way to render them accountable. New York state has spent over one million dollars to install cameras in its prisons. Why can't we?

Anonymous said...

You know, even if just 1% of the stories I hear are true, you would think that the abused inmate would go after the officer and his family once he's released, not like they can't be found. To my knowledge this has never occurred though. So either it's a bunch of made-up BS, or the inmates are weak and deserve their mistreatment.

George said...

@ Anonymous 11:23,

Or perhaps the abused inmate is more of a human being than the officer/s who abused him/her. As to whether the inmates are weak or not, how does that make them deserving of any kind of mistreatment? Sounds to me like you are a sick SOB, just my personal opinion of course.

Anonymous said...

Ask yourself just how long would it take for the abuse to stop if the officers along with their families were targeted for retaliation. Now you'll probably say the tired and worn-out and silly response of "violence solves nothing", right? But the fact is that there are times when violence is the rightful solution, perhaps the only solution. I've been a paralegal for 22-years now and the police violence against citizens and the correction officer violence against inmates has been going on ever since. And everything has seemingly been tried, as far as words go. I cannot tell you the thousands of articles and investigations I've seen, I've read. Lip service by those in charge has brought about zero change. Promises, promises, promises. But nothing has changed except maybe an increase in violence on the part of correctional officers and cops. When you peruse these legal blogs whose purpose is to bring about peaceful change, ask yourself, go back all the way to the very first Grits blog, and you'll see that Scott is still writing the exact same things and nothing at all has changed. Hell, he could save himself a lot of keystrokes by copying-and-pasting. I don't think I'm a sick SOB. I've never had a violent encounter of any kind either. But I am a pragmatist, and if you look for a solution using logic and reason, then you must arrive at violence, either that or you are incredibly obtuse. Just my personal opinion.

George said...

@ Anonymous 12:32

My reference to you being a sick SOB was to your statement inferring that weak individuals should be mistreated. I still stand by that observation.

I do agree with you that mere talking will not solve the societal issues that remain prevalent today. I disagree that vigilantism and physical retaliation is the only way to "get their attention". The vast majority of the people eligible in this country simply DO NOT VOTE. If they did and did it in a way that was solidarity then the bastards in office would, either have no choice to listen, or it would indeed lead to violence.

Anonymous said...

When a sheriff is allowed to run 12 man Goon Squads (cadets and deputies led by a Lt.) through the entire building at 3Am (flinging Ajax Bombs at the walls and ordering Inmates to clean it up or get jumped with no consequences) in the early 80s', don't be surprised to learn that subsequent sheriffs' are allowed to run their gulags with impunity in the 90s' and beyond. They take this training with them to the streets and as they climb the mini-prison ladder, some become sheriffs themselves and pass on training methods to the next generation. Bullies begot Bullies, that's what they do.

Yes, they eventually get out and never forget. Every time they eat a free county meal, I can still see the secrete sauce being added by the Inmate with a black eye and size 12 heel impression on his jaw all because he sneezed next to Lt. Robbinson (btw, first black on black crime I'd seen). The medical staff is just as corrupt which can be verified when they give out band aids to Inmate with black eyes, chipped teeth and busted ribs. In lieu of filling out an in house SR-22 or taking himself out, the day he got out, those that witnessed his beating knew exactly what he going to do. Pity the mofos that harm the wrong person.